Commentary

Junior Johnson: The boys at JGR were just doing their jobs ... with creative flair

There's a fine line between cheatin' and creatin', and Junior Johnson -- perhaps the most accomplished "creator" of all time -- says the boys at Joe Gibbs Racing weren't cheatin', writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: August 23, 2008, 11:02 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Junior JohnsonAP photo/str/xnJunior Johnson on NASCAR rule makers: "It's their sport, and they're gonna run it the way they see fit."

Junior Johnson reckons he wouldn't have gotten caught like those poor guys from Joe Gibbs Racing did this past week in maybe the toughest cheating bust in the history of NASCAR.

He hates it for them, because they were just trying to hide what they'd earned honestly, with hard work: extra horsepower.

"There's a difference between cheating and creating," he said. "They were creating."

(By that terminology, Junior was arguably the slyest creator in the history of NASCAR.)

What they did was just too obvious, he figures: placing magnetized shims under the accelerator pedals of two Nationwide Series cars so the pedals wouldn't go to the floor in a dynamometer test.

NASCAR technical inspectors "probably noticed that the carburetor wasn't wide open," Junior surmised.

"What they should have done -- if it'd been me, I'd have gone after the timing in the motor," he said.

"All I'd have done is just picked me up a hammer and a screwdriver and knocked that damn distributor about a half-inch low, to retard the spark."

But wouldn't the inspectors have noticed the engine sounded funny?

"Naw, it would have sounded all right. It just wouldn't have pulled the horsepower.

"That would have been the wise thing to do," Junior continued. "Then they couldn't have got you for cheatin'."

[+] EnlargeJason Ratcliff
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezCrew chief Jason Ratcliff, right, was one of seven Joe Gibbs Racing crew members suspended by NASCAR.

A distributor out of kilter would have been, uh, a malfunction. An accident.

And Junior could have walked away from that test at Michigan International Speedway this past Saturday with his horses intact.

As it turned out, JGR got "probably the worst penalty I've ever heard of," Junior said.

Seven men out.

Seven good men suspended indefinitely.

All because they did their jobs so well, he figures -- innovated like no one else in NASCAR nowadays, found a big advantage with their engines that not even other Toyota teams had found.

Then, at the test, "They were trying to save what they'd worked their ass off to get," Junior said, "and they got caught."

What a pity, to Junior Johnson's mind.

The predawn hours at Junior's place, near the epicenter of old moonshine country -- and the cradle of so-called cheating in NASCAR -- were filled with friends trying to talk away the sadness, commiserating with Junior over fatback and biscuits about this latest, worst trouble for the romance and the lore.

Before the sky was even pink, neighbors -- farmers, short-track mechanics and, yes, a former back-hollow distiller or two -- gathered in the kitchen down by Junior's barn, down the road from his mansion on his sprawling cattle ranch near the hamlet of Hamptonville, N.C.

They read the papers about those poor boys at JGR and shook their heads with sad little smiles.

Junior got busted for cheating more times than he can remember -- or NASCAR wants to count.

But many of his creations weren't caught, through 50 wins as a driver and 140 as an owner.

Take his trick whereby, "You could run a 500 cubic-inch motor and it would check at 358 or whatever they wanted," he said.

All he did was file a slot, a tiny channel, out from the edge of the spark plug hole. So when inspectors attached "that little pump" that measured cubic inches by air pressure, that slot "was letting off air," he said, just enough to make the engine look legal.

Come race time, "You put a washer around the spark plug," he said, and tightened it down, and off your driver went with your big engine.

His friends grinned as they baked biscuits, stewed apples, stirred the grits and gravy and scrambled eggs.

Junior, now 77 and 13 years retired from NASCAR, fried the fatback, the country ham, three kinds of sausage and the thick-sliced bacon.

To gather with them there, you had to be careful in the misting rain and the fog off the creeks in the darkness as you turned off U.S. 421 onto "old 421" -- the road Junior used to run with a 180-gallon load aboard, propelled by a 454 Cadillac engine with two four-barrel carburetors, all neatly packaged in a '39 Ford coupe, the best chassis ever built and modified for hauling moonshine down out of these Brushy Mountains just east of the Blue Ridge.

Junior was just 4 the first time the feds raided his father's house, taking out hundreds of cases of full quart jars. They slid them down planks from the attic, and he and his brother Fred made a game of riding the cases down to the first floor.

"The officers fussed at us: 'You young'uns git your hind ends outta here!'

"We says, 'We live here! You'uns git outta here!'"

That was in 1935. The biggest moonshine raid in U.S. history to that point came right there on Robert Glen Johnson Sr.'s farm.

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
AP Photo/Paul SancyaChad Knaus, who's been slapped with six-race suspensions each of the past two seasons, says NASCAR has choked the competitive spirit in the garage.

"I was haulin' liquor when I was 14," Junior said. "I didn't get my driver's license 'til I was about 17. I wasn't gonna stop no way, so I didn't need one."

Growing up, he learned how to do what he had to do to a car for what he has long called "a race to win or go to prison."

That was how all the Carolina moonshine runners and all the "whiskey trippers" down in Georgia saw it. And so when they came to be the cornerstones of NASCAR in the 1940s and heard "stock" parts were mandated, they just snickered among themselves and went on doing what they'd always done to their cars, only secretly this time, inventing ways to conceal their tricks.

That creativity came to be called cheating. Now the episodes are called "cheating scandals" in the media, as NASCAR officials police with unprecedented zeal and science, on behalf of what they call "the integrity of the sport."

"They want it to be honest," Junior said, understanding but not smiling.

In Nationwide, it's engines, and in the elite Sprint Cup series, "That Car of Tomorrow takes the chassis out" of the innovation arena, Junior said. "You do anything to that chassis, they'll wear you out" with penalties.

Could the cleansing snuff the innovative spirit?

"It can't help it," Junior said.

"It's gone," Chad Knaus said later at Bristol Motor Speedway of the innovative spirit. Knaus, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, is the best of the current creators, having been busted once in each of the past two seasons with six-race suspensions. With the COT, "There's not a whole lot you can do. And they're just making it worse. There's more rules coming for next year," Knaus said.

"It's their sport, and they're gonna run it the way they see fit," Junior said of NASCAR. "I know what they're trying to do. They're trying to clean up the sport to where it won't be called a cheater sport."

"It's our responsibility to keep the playing field out here level for everybody," NASCAR president Mike Helton said. "The action we took on the Gibbs cars was as much about protecting the integrity of the process, which today includes protecting data. Our process is on behalf of the integrity of the sport."

And yet, "It's always fascinating to see the ingenuity of these guys in the garage area," Helton said. "And there's not a weekend that goes by that we don't sit around with tongue in cheek, talking about guys like Junior Johnson."

Junior did only one year in a federal pen for moonshining, and the feds never did catch him on the road. They had to tackle him on foot in the woods in the predawn, when he'd gone to stoke his father's still so the fire would burn down by dawn and revenuers wouldn't see the smoke rising over the trees.

Junior's daddy was imprisoned three times for moonshining. His mother was booked, fingerprinted, her mugshot taken, but never did time.

All the Johnson family of Wilkes County, N.C., ever did, they felt, was earn their living the best they could on hardscrabble land that would barely grow corn for the sour mash. Making liquor in the hollows was hard work, and outrunning the law on the road was harder.

So is gaining a technical edge in NASCAR.

"A lot of the stuff is not cheatin'," Junior said, "just 'cause you've got a great idea and you want to exercise that idea on beatin' your competitors. NASCAR determines whether it's cheatin' or not.

"The guys at Joe Gibbs Racing, the engineers and the motor builders, have stayed up day and night and done the work to make their motors pull more horsepower. … Look at Red Bull [the distant second-best Toyota team]. They ain't nowhere near where Gibbs is at.

"And that ain't nothing but hard work."

But, "The other three carmakers [Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge] have been bitchin' about Toyota had a lot more power than they had, and they wanted NASCAR to take it away," Junior said.

"The fact of the matter is, we're here because we knew how to make race cars go fast," Knaus said. Note the past tense. "And that was the competitive spirit. The nature of the business. But from all the bad publicity, and the people complaining and whining … it's made NASCAR say, 'OK, we don't want a bad light on our sport. So we're going to make it to where you can't do anything.'

"And it's sad. It really is sad."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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