Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Breakfast with Junior

Before sunrise this morning I walked into a garage shop in Yadkin County, NC and discovered one of my favorite living legends in a kitchenette in the corner of the shop, calmly tending to a pan of sizzling bacon.  He was cooking my breakfast.

Junior Johnson is one of a small group of men who actually helped invent a professional sport.  We know it today as NASCAR.  As a driver, he won 50 races.  As a team owner, his drivers won 139 races.  Two of his drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough, brought him a combined 6 Winston Cup Championships.  The list of drivers who worked for him could fill the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and undoubtedy will - one of these days.  The names are Waltrip, Yarborough, Foyt, Pearson, Allison, Bonnett, Labonte, Elliott, and many more.  Junior personally invented the technique known as "drafting" on a race track.  His life was the subject of a movie.  When they opened the Hall of Fame, his name was in the first class.

And there he stood, scrambling eggs and frying sausage and tending to a pan of hot biscuits.  He stopped long enough to extend his hand to me with a big smile.  "Thank y'all for stoppin' by this mornin'."  We moved around the shop, talking to the other dozen or so visitors for the next few minutes, and then Junior gestured to the pair of long tables set up for us and said "Food's ready.  Y'all find a place and dig in."

Junior and two or three helpers laid on a breakfast that would put any Cracker Barrel to shame.  I counted at least 18 different items.  They passed around platters of fresh cantaloupe, sliced fresh tomatoes, bowls of hot grits, scrambled eggs with sausage, scrambled eggs with salmon, hash brown potatoes and fried livermush.  A big steaming bowl of sausage gravy made the rounds, followed by a bowl of stewed apples smothered in apple butter.  I asked Junior if he does this very often.  "Five days a week" he said.  They passed a platter of pork chops, country ham, bacon and three different varieties of sausage - and hog jowls - and streak-o-lean.  And the platter of hot biscuits never stopped moving until it was empty.

As soon as everyone had been served, Junior sat down across from us.  "Junior, are you not eating this morning?" I asked.  "Naw - once you've cooked it, you ain't real hungry.  I don't eat a lot these days anyway."  The rest of us more than made up for his good behavior, eating like we had never seen food before.  And all the while, Junior sat back in his chair and kept us company.

He is a reserved man - soft spoken and to the point.  Having grown up in these parts, I have known men like him my whole life - smarter than ten other men combined and also smart enough not to let it show.  For the next hour we relaxed, we laughed, and we talked about everything from the birth of NASCAR to the merits of white corn grits over yellow.  He prefers the yellow, and buys his from a local grist mill.

He spoke of the early days in NASCAR when he and Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett would stick around and sign autographs until the last fan had exited the gate.  When I asked if that didn't get tiring, he grinned.  Ever the innovator, Junior had a crew member who looked a lot like him - a crew member who sometimes got pressed into the duty of signing autographs, posing for photos and shaking hands.  Nobody ever caught on.

We heard first-hand how the sport was born.  He explained how you couldn't fill the back of a 1940 Ford with a load of bootleg liquor and take the curves on those mountain roads, so they started tinkering with the cars.  If something broke, they decided they'd better not build it that way next time.  Full-floating rear suspensions, reinforced wheels, hubs and spindles were all brought into the world on the back roads of North Carolina.  He said they had no choice but to figure it out.

Over the years, he remained way out in front of everyone else in "figuring it out".  Darlington was his favorite track.  He said you never raced the other cars at Darlington - you raced the track and hoped that you beat it.  He got tired of wrecking down there and decided he needed to figure out a way to hit the wall without tearing up his car.  So he came up with the idea of springs inside his rear fenders.  Every time he hit the wall after that, the springs kept the fenders from shredding his tires.  It worked like a charm.  Soon, the rest of the sport came begging for his secret.  He was using carbon fiber for years before most in NASCAR even knew what it was - a little trick he picked up from the aviation industry.

We spoke of other things - things like the difference between California wines and fledgling wines being produced in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley.  Someone asked if Darrell Waltrip should have been nominated for this year's class in the Hall of Fame.  He said yes.  My husband asked if there shouldn't be a "Run What You Brung" series in NASCAR - a back-to-the-roots series that might happen on Friday nights when the Cup Series is in town.  Absolutely, he said.  He'd love to see it, but doesn't hold out much hope.
And then we began to disperse.  We posed for a picture.  I tried to put Junior in the middle, between the two of us.  He would have none of that.  "No - you get in the middle", he said, and we all smiled for the camera.
We thanked his business partner, Tim, who had read my previous blog post about Junior, which is what prompted the invitation to breakfast.  The name of this blog, "Sweet Tea Gazette", caught his eye.  I had no idea that Junior is also in the Sweet Tea business until Tim told me.  Small world.  You can buy Junior Johnson Sweet Tea at any Lowes Foods store.
You can also buy Junior Johnson Morning Rolls, Country Ham Biscuits, Sausage Biscuits.  And then there is Junior Johnson Country Ham, and, of course, Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, a totally legal version of the brew that started it all - if you're able to handle the stuff.

At age 78, he's a busy man yet.  You might ask why anyone with as many accomplishments as Junior wouldn't just want to sit back and rest on his laurels and enjoy being a legend in his own time.  Well, there is that.  But people like Junior who are born with the gift of figuring it out, never stop racing and most always find their way to the top, no matter what the arena.  I do know this:  If his other ventures ever go south on him, he can always go into the breakfast-cooking business.  I'll be his best customer.


  1. Great post, Beth. I only have one question! Give that Junior often had a "stand in" for his autograph sessions after a race, are you sure the REAL Junior was doing the cookin' today? ;-)

    Couldn't resist!
    Diane :-)

  2. How awesome that he does this often and that you went. How awesome that you shared with all of us as if we were right there. I grew up hearing his name and in our house - it was Jesus, Grandma, and JJ! This just shows how special you are!

  3. Sure sounds like you had a wonderful time and many memories were made!

  4. Boy,I wish I could have been with you all,MY KIND OF FOLKS.
    Buddy Perryman

  5. Thanks, Buddy. We had a great time.