When you cross the Wilkes County line, you enter Junior Johnson country. It's beautiful: a green, moss-draped cathedral of steep hills and winding roads, punctuated with country churches and gas stations that look like they were beamed forward through time from the 1950s.
Which is only fitting. The fifties were the golden age of moonshine running, a time when Wilkes County thundered with the late-night roar of modified V8 engines as bootleggers ran from the law. No one was faster than Junior, a bootlegger who went on to become a NASCAR champion and a cultural icon.
And it all started right here on the back roads of Wilkes County, which served as Junior's high-speed Harvard, teaching him the countless tricks of driving fast in a high-powered car loaded with half a ton of illegal liquor. Junior's dad was one of the state's biggest copper-still operators, and his moonshining career started before he was old enough to hold a driver's licence.
"Didn't need one," he explains. "I wasn't going to stop anyway."
When I decided to take a grand driving tour of North Carolina, I decided that Junior's place would be my first stop. I had a brand-new Camaro convertible, and I wanted to get lost in North Carolina's deepest, greenest hills and carve its fastest, trickiest roads. What better adviser could there be than Junior, inventor of the bootlegger turn (a high-velocity spin that lets you evade a police roadblock) and central character of The Last American Hero, the famous Tom Wolfe essay that put moonshining (and NASCAR) on the map?
Junior's place looked like something out of a calendar: Horses grazed behind board fences and a black 1940s Ford sedan with an oversize motor was parked in the driveway, as if a midnight run across the state line was in the offing. Junior served me breakfast in his garage, a metal-sheathed building that serves as a combination repair shop and social centre. A stock car stood in the corner, and a picnic table was set with a breakfast of grits, eggs and liver mush (a southern specialty that Junior was raised on). I sat between Clay Call and Millard Ashley, two of Junior's oldest bootlegger buddies.
The walls were hung with faded newspaper clippings and trophies earned during Junior's long, colourful career – speedway wins, a Hall of Fame induction and a highway with his name on it.
Junior himself seemed unaffected by it all. "Junior's just Junior," Millard said. "Same as always."
Junior and his friends knew every road in the territory, paved and otherwise. "I've driven them all," Junior said. "And I've been chased on them all." I spread out a North Carolina map on Junior's desk and began mapping out a route.
"Head up into the back woods," Junior said. "Road won't go straight for long."
I soon found myself deep in bootleg country, cruising past sleepy farms nestled deep in the hollows. I tried some twisting dirt roads, sliding the Camaro through the turns to get a taste of what it was like for Junior, Millard and Clay in the 1950s. Trees blurred past the windows, and a long tail of dust rose behind the Camaro like the contrail of a low-flying jet. I stopped by a creek that moonshiners once used as a water supply. As the engine cooled, I listened to the wind sighing through the hardwoods and the crow of a distant rooster. I was in driving paradise.
It was time for lunch. I stopped at the Brushy Mountain Café in Millers Creek. It was a simple, meticulously clean place that specializes in down-home cooking. (I ordered pulled pork and fried okra.) The café's main claim to fame is the fact that Junior eats there.
Junior's social gravitas is hard to exaggerate. Everyone in North Carolina seems to know him. I got out of a speeding ticket by invoking his name. Like Muhammad Ali or Rocket Richard, he is the ultimate embodiment of a type – in this case, the hard-driving, slow-talking good ol' boy who remained true to his humble roots after achieving wealth and fame.
"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.
So I asked him: "Tom Wolfe?" Junior replied. "He was a odd boy. Had him a Scottish wool suit. It was July."
And the story itself? "Us country boys don't understand that kind of writing," Junior replied. "But they tell us it was pretty good."
IF YOU GO
The Fryemont Inn (Bryson City; fryemontinn.com; from $95). An Appalachian-style inn that dates back to 1923. The floors are uneven, and as it's surrounded by forest, you feel as though you're in a tree house. The dining room is beautiful, and you're mere moments from some of the best driving roads in the world.
Where to go
Piedmont Distilleries (203 East Murphy St., Madison; piedmontdistillers.com). Located in a former train station, the distiller sells such products as Midnight Moon, Junior Johnson's now-legal moonshine. (Unlike the old days, this time he pays taxes.)
The Tail of the Dragon ( tailofthedragon.com). An 11-mile stretch of road with 318 curves. Set your GPS to the town of Tapoco, N.C., and you'll be in the right place. The road runs from North Carolina into Tennessee and draws millions of performance-minded drivers from around the world. Bring a sports car and driving skill.
For die-hard drivers
The Richard Petty Driving Experience ( drivepetty.com). You'll do three laps of a NASCAR track at up to 274 kilometres an hour with an expert driver at the wheel. You won't forget it, and you'll come away with huge respect for the professionals who do this for a living. Available at several NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame (Charlotte; nascarhall.com ). This is a new facility that documents the long, colourful history of stock car racing's rise from dirt-field competitions to its current, billion-dollar reality. There are hundreds of exhibits, including cars that were once driven by such legends as Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty (a.k.a. The King). Upstairs, there's a moonshine still that was assembled for the Hall of Fame by Junior Johnson himself. You can drive a stock car simulator, or try changing wheels in the pit crew simulator.