Of the 17 people who did receive clemency from the current administration, most committed minor crimes (coin mutilation, alligator hide possession) decades ago. Not that they aren’t grateful; depending on the jurisdiction, ex-felons of any kind forfeit some of their core civil rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, and/or to serve on a jury. Indeed, Junior Johnson -- one of the most accomplished Americans ever to file for clemency -- considered his 1986 presidential pardon one of the great thrills of his life.
And Johnson had many. The first superstar of NASCAR, Junior won 50 major stock car races between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s and another 139 as a team owner in the three succeeding decades. Behind the wheel, he perfected two racing techniques that forever changed the sport: the power slide and drafting. The former, when the driver slows through a turn by cocking the wheel to the left and gunning it before hitting a bend in the track, allows the car to come out of turns more quickly than consistently laying on the brake, while the latter -- when one car trails in the wake of another to minimize wind resistance -- helps slower cars keep pace with souped-up competitors.
It was on the dusty roads of Wilkes County, North Carolina where Junior gained his dexterity behind the wheel. Like thousands of Scot-Irish descendants before him, Johnson ran untaxed moonshine* through the back country woods. To the locals, it was a business with no less legitimacy than any other. Junior worked for his father, who operated one of the biggest individual copper-stills in the region. On a given night, young drivers could make $300 transporting a few dozen cases of mountain dew**, so long as they outran the federal tax agents known as “revenuers,” which Johnson always did. “I never got caught behind the wheel running," he later bragged. “I've still got my marks on a bunch of those trees all along the roads there.”
Yet he was clipped once, in 1957, when officials staked out his father’s home and found the son on his way to fire up the family’s still. Johnson was arrested and served 11 months and three days in federal prison, the crime for which he was eventually pardoned. In a funny way, the booking was a blessing; as an older man, the driver claimed that in prison he “found out that I could listen to another fellow and be told what to do and h'it wouldn't kill me." His felony helped reinforce his bonafides as a rebel, too, setting the stage for his emergence as legitimate southern folk hero.
That image was solidified in 1963, the most memorable season of his career. The good ole boy grossed $100,000 in earnings and set multiple qualifying records driving a Chevy, an inferior car not bankrolled by Detroit’s two earliest NASCAR investors, Ford and Chrysler. Those qualifying runs were often more thrilling to fans than the races themselves; because a stock car track is a giant oval and circling it requires very little handling ability, the sprints became, as Tom Wolfe describes it in his famous profile of Johnson, “a test of raw nerve -- of how fast a man is willing to take a curve.” In those early days, nobody was quite as fearless as Junior.
Last year, Johnson was one of the inaugural inductees of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor he shared with legendary mustachioed driver Richard Petty. Since 2007, he’s also returned to his liquor roots, distilling and distributing Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, a legal moonshine. (Reviews are mixed.) Working through an authorized dealer is certainly preferable to rejoining the underground industry, which investigative reporter Max Watman says “shows no signs of letting up.” If he ran into trouble again, Johnson would probably have less success convincing the new occupants of the White House to throw him a bone.
**Other hilarious nicknames include White Lightning; Kickapoo, Joy Juice, Hooch, Ruckus Juice, Happy Sally, Hillbilly Pop and Panther's Breath.