Higgins Scuffs: Junior Johnson 'hammers out' a victory
Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013
Junior Johnson was being threatened with great bodily harm that Sunday in 1961.
No, not by a rival mountain moonshiner. But by the owner/sponsor of the Pontiac he was driving in the Virginia Sweepstakes 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Rex Lovette had fetched a sledgehammer from among the team's tools and was wielding it menacingly at Junior during a pit stop.
"I just grinned at Rex and gave him a thumbs up," Junior recalls with a hearty laugh. "That made him even madder. I don't think I've ever seen an angrier man."
That highly-amusing incident of 52 years ago returns to mind as NASCAR's top level teams return to Martinsville once again for the Goody's 500 on Sunday.
By my count, it will mark the 128th time that the sanctioning body's foremost circuit has appeared at the .526-mile track in the Blue Ridge foothills.
Best I can figure, I've covered between 45-50 of those races.
However, I wasn't staffing that event 52 years ago. I had gone to Martinsville as a spectator, accompanying my friends and fellow sportswriters Hank Schoolfield and Herman Hickman, both now deceased.
And what a memorable, unusual show I saw, along with an estimated 16,000 or so other fans!
It appeared that Ford star Fred Lorenzen might run away with the race as he led laps 32-365. Lorenzen's domination left Junior four laps down.
However, engine problems developed for Lorenzen, and he had to make an extended stop while his Holman-Moody crew hustled to get the car going again.
Remarkably, Johnson, setting a torrid pace, went from being four laps behind to four laps ahead.
Still, Junior stuck to his usual style, running the No. 27 Pontiac just as fast as it would go, same way he drove on the roads when hauling a load of illegal white liquor and outrunning revenuers, who never once were able to nab him on the highway.
This is what ignited the fuse of Lovette, a founder of Holly Farms Poultry in Wilkes County, N.C., where Junior was born and continued to live.
Lovette and the crew repeatedly ordered Junior to slow down and nurse his big lead to the checkered flag. Junior ignored them.
"Rex and my brother Fred had come up with the idea of using radios between the pit and the car," Junior remembers. "Holly Farms used radios in its business as a means of communicating with truck drivers picking up chickens from farmers. We decided to take a pair of these radios to Martinsville.
"Far as I know, it's the first time anyone in NASCAR ever tried it.
"Anyway, when I got so far ahead Rex and the crew boys agreed that I should back off a little. I did, I felt, but not enough for them.
"I thought the car was set up in such a way that I needed to keep running fairly fast to keep it working right. If I had backed off any more, the car wouldn't have done what it was supposed to.
"Well, Rex kept cussin' and raisin' the dickens on the radio. He was on there so much that it was distracting me, so I cut the darn thing off.
"Each time I came down the front straight I tapped on my helmet. That was pre-arranged signal that I couldn't hear any radio messages."
The crew then tried communicating with Junior the old-fashioned way--through the use of a large chalk board. They wrote on it in big letters, "E-Z."
Still, Junior ignored the order.
Lovette became agitated and exasperated.
During Junior's final pit stop Lovette grabbed that sledgehammer, strode to the pit wall and waved it at Junior, eliciting that impish grin and thumbs up.
The fans watching the gyrations of the sledgehammer-wielding Lovette roared in delight.
"I thought Rex was gonna go beserk," says Junior, chuckling. "He was still pretty mad even after I won the race."
Junior took the checkered flag four laps ahead of runnerup Emmanuel Zervakis. Fireball Roberts, Tommy Irwin and Buck Baker finished 3-5. Lorenzen returned to salvage 11th.
The triumph was among 50 Johnson amassed as a driver. He won 132 times as a team owner, claiming six Cup Series championships en route to becoming an inaugural inductee into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame in Charlotte in 2010.
If there was such a thing as a Time Machine, I wish today's fans could take it back through the years and see Junior Johnson drive during his prime, as he so colorfully did all those decades ago at Martinsville.
It would be more than worth the trip.