Tom Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88, penned one of the greatest works related to sports when he wrote "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" for Esquire in 1965.
Wolfe, a Richmond, Va., native, who earned a tryout with baseball's New York Giants, made a trip to North Carolina, passing through "the Greensboro Airport" to make his way along U.S. 421 to North Wilkesboro Speedway.
He met Junior Johnson, and he wrote about the Southern obsession with auto racing, referencing High Point and Winston-Salem; "WTOB, the Vibrant Mothering Voice of Winston-Salem"; and, of course, Level Cross' Richard Petty and his father, Lee, along the way.
"Junior Johnson has followers who need to keep him, symbolically, riding through nighttime like a demon. Madness! But Junior Johnson is one of the last of those sports stars who is not just an ace at the game itself, but a hero a whole people or class of people can identify with."
Wolfe and Johnson reunited in October 2015, both then 84 years old, and Esquire wrote:
His “statusphere” obsession — “How do we look?” he says. “How do we sound to other people?” — turned him into an anthropologist once he was in Junior Johnson country, getting to the heart of a culture that made the biggest traffic jams in the world to go see stock cars race around a track, and paid the son of a bootlegger the ungodly sum of $100,000 dollars a year to do it. The writing that came out of Wolfe’s spelunking was so thrilling, and funny, transgressive, fresh and new that it changed just about everything.
It sure changed Junior Johnson’s life. The man who would win fifty races, and go on to be a successful NASCAR team owner, points to Wolfe, turns to me and says, “He done more for me than anybody. He done more for NASCAR than anybody.”