“He never got above his raising,” said one local, paying him the highest possible compliment.
Although he was thrown in jail in the 1950s, Junior's bootlegging past is now the ultimate pedigree. At 79, he is North Carolina royalty, and North Carolina's ultimate pitchman – the tourist board now uses him as a symbol. “There's still plenty of people who don't want to talk about liquor running,” says Margo Metzger of the N.C. Department of Commerce. “But it's part of who we are. There's a lot of romance to it.”
I headed northwest into the Great Smoky Mountains to sample a legendary road called The Tail of the Dragon: It has 318 turns in 11 miles.
I arrived late and spent the night at the Fryemont Inn, a beautiful, vine-covered establishment in Bryson City, about half an hour from the Dragon. The inn looked out through steep hallways of trees, and I slept to the sound of the night wind rustling millions of leaves.
I was on the Dragon first thing the next morning. Silvery bridal veils of mist hung in the leafy valleys, and the road was spectacular, endless curves winding through the mystical forests of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I drove it four times, then stopped at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. The crowd was a little heavy on tattoos and leather for my tastes, but I loved the Tree of Shame, where riders hang crashed motorcycle parts. (Several new fragments were added during my stay.)
After the Dragon, I headed down to Charlotte, the Vatican of NASCAR, where I spent my time exploring stock car racing's new, megabuck reality. I took a tour of Hendrick Motorsports, one of the sport's top teams – their garages were the size of Wal-Mart stores. I walked through rooms filled with teams of engineers and million-dollar robot machine tools that NASA would envy. As this went on, team boss Rick Hendrick alighted on the front lawn in his new, custom-painted Bell 430 helicopter.
I headed to the Hendrick gift shop, which was also the size of a Wal-Mart. I'm not personally in the market for a Jimmie Johnson dog bowl, a Dale Earnhardt Junior T-shirt or a gas-powered kiddie car, but if I was, this would be the place to go. (My favourite part of the store was Ken Schrader's wrecked stock car, which was on display like the Shroud of Turin.)
That night, I watched my first NASCAR race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Imagine a Roman chariot race with un-muffled, 800-horsepower engines, set in the Super Bowl stadium and you've got the picture.) The racing was surprisingly fun to watch – the cars circled the banked track at more than 320 kilometres an hour, and there were four crashes within the first three laps.
There were plenty of mullets in the stands, but some of the spectators surprised me. I met a woman who designs perfume, and a Wall Street venture capitalist who had flown down that afternoon in his private jet. “Best racing there is,” he told me. “I love it.”
Although I'm a Formula One guy at heart, there was an authentic, raw-boned beauty to the spectacle. The cars flew through the steep banks like stunt planes, and the crowd roared with every lap. Fireworks exploded into the night sky. Across from the bleachers was the world's biggest LCD screen, which measured 61 metres across.
I headed back out into the open country and spent the next day looking for lost back roads. The sun was shining, I had a fast car, and I could see why Junior Johnson never left the place where he was born. I was deep in speed country, and life was good.
I kept thinking about The Last American Hero, the 1973 article that made Junior an international celebrity. I studied the story in journalism school, and have always admired it as a game-changer, both for magazine writing and the sport of stock-car racing. After meeting Junior, I wondered what he thought of the story, and of Wolfe, a brilliant dandy known for his fancy suits and spectacular diction.