HAMPTONVILLE, N.C. -- Junior Johnson sits on his cherry red couch, his wife, Lisa, beside him and their two small children climbing all over him. Johnson, 66, wears a beatific smile.
The stock cars and racetracks are behind him. These days, his job description is as follows: loving husband, doting father and master of a country chateau.
"This is when you should have children," Johnson says. "Most people work all their lives and can't spend as much time as they want with their kids. Then, when they're at the age to retire, the kids are grown and gone. Me, I spend all my time with them and enjoy every moment."
He retired from Winston Cup racing in 1995. Johnson won 50 races as a driver from 1953 to 1966, then became an equally successful owner, with 129 victories. Those are just numbers, though. Johnson was -- in the words of author Tom Wolfe -- "The Last American Hero."
But Johnson hasn't been to a NASCAR race since retiring.
"I was at the point in my life where I had given everything to racing and had come to the time when I needed to devote myself to Lisa and our two kids," he says. "Racing is a mind-boggling, twisting type of sport that keeps you so confined. You're either in it or out of it. And it's a pleasure to be out of it."
Yes, out of racing -- and into the bathtub. Each evening, the four Johnsons take to a large, white whirlpool tub for their nightly bath.
"It's one of the great family pleasures of our day," says Lisa, 31. "But I don't know how much longer we'll all fit, as the children get older."
The children are Robert Glenn Johnson III, age 4, and Meredith, who turned 2 last month. Meredith's big birthday party included about two dozen neighborhood children and a cake that her daddy encouraged her to pick up and eat with her fingers.
Mansion on a hill
They live in a 10,000-square-foot home on a hill overlooking a valley with a view all the way to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Used to be you could drive up and gawk at Johnson's Carolina castle. But so many fans did that, the Johnsons installed a gate to protect their children from the traffic.
To get to Johnson's home, a long stone's throw from Route 421, which runs between Winston-Salem and North Wilkesboro, you drive up a long, asphalt driveway between black board fences until you get to a tall, black-grilled gate fitted out with an intercom.
The house sits in the middle of 200 acres that are roamed by about 200 beef cattle, a breed called Santa Gertrudis. Between 700 and 800 more cattle graze on nearly 500 acres the Johnsons own in the nearby Brushy Mountains.
The house has muraled ceilings, painted with blue skies and soft, white clouds. There is Mexican limestone from Acapulco covering 2,200 feet of uncarpeted floor, marbled stone fireplaces and banisters, a room for young Robert with its walls painted to mimic those of a rustic log cabin, a large, carpeted room containing nothing but a triple-decker row of plastic storage bins stuffed with children's toys.
And there are crystal and gold chandeliers in the entry hall and the bathroom foyer. The master bathroom is a palace all by itself, with its walk-down, freestanding shower and that family tub.
It's a funny place to find Junior Johnson.
If truth be known, Johnson is surprised still that he made it into retirement. In fact, he's surprised he made it beyond his moonshine-running days.
"You look out there at Route 421," he says, waving toward the highway. "Going 60 miles an hour on that road now is dangerous. And we were going 120 mph on it 40 years ago, every night. There wasn't as much traffic, but just surviving it you had to be good to not wreck and kill yourself. And it was an everyday thing. Kind of like a cocked gun every night you went out."
Birth of 'bootleg turn'
Johnson grew up in Ingle Hollow, the son of a copper-still moonshine maker. He became a legend while delivering his daddy's whiskey to speakeasies and neighborhood bars during the 1950s.
"Junior Johnson is like Robin Hood or Jesse James or Little David. Junior Johnson is the last of those sports stars who is not just an ace at the game itself," wrote Tom Wolfe, "but a hero a whole people or class of people can identify with. Junior Johnson a modern hero, all involved with car culture and car symbolism in the South. A wild new thing."
Johnson was 33 years old when Wolfe wrote about him in 1963. In those days, his own stock-car racing career was earning him more than $100,000 a year, but he was still famous for his moonshine running, for outwitting the local police with his invention of the "bootleg turn," in which he'd throw the car into second gear, turn the wheel and step on the gas, forcing the car into a 180-degree spin, after which he'd roar back past his pursuers.
Johnson saw Wolfe recently in Asheville, and he laughs at the memory.