Saturday, February 13, 2010

Junior Johnson Talks Rule Bending, Breakfast and Racing

Junior Johnson is an American legend. One of the original superstars of NASCAR, Johnson was among the icons of the sport named to the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and he'll serve as Grand Marshal for Sunday's Daytona 500.

It's not every day you get to catch up with a legend. But Johnson took some time before his trip to Daytona to answer our questions about his new line of breakfast food, breaking the rules back in the day, and being a NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Tell me a little bit about your Junior Johnson Brand product line and why you decided to get into the food business.

“Well, we have a very successful ham and pork skin company so we've been in the food business for over 10 years, and I love to eat. We created this new line of Junior Johnson Brand products based on some of the most popular breakfast items we serve out here on our ranch almost every day. People who would come join us for breakfast would always say ‘Junior, why don't you package these products and sell them in the stores. People would love them.’ So that's what we did. Biscuits are a big favorite here and my favorites have always been country ham biscuits and sweet potato biscuits. A lot of people don't know that over 40% of all the sweet potatoes purchased in the U.S. are grown right here in North Carolina. We use real NC Sweet potatoes in our biscuits. Pigs In A Blanket and Sausage Morning Rolls are famous down here in the south. We have 2 kids in school and it is great to have something Lisa and I can heat up quickly before they run off for the day. Of course you have to have something to drink with these products so we came out with our own Sweet Tea and Lemonade. I think these are the best you can buy anywhere. We also have some new stuff coming out so stay tuned.”

I hear you still serve a big breakfast at your garage every day - how and when did this all start and do you have a favorite breakfast recipe?

“I cannot tell you how long we have been having breakfast there, but it has been a long time. I started the breakfast tradition to get everyone into the garage earlier each morning. I figured if I served breakfast, my employees wouldn’t be so late to work (laughing). We serve a traditional Southern breakfast, so we have a lot of the recipes that most people no longer serve, like livermush, hog jaw and streak o’ lean. Of course, we always like the standards like biscuits and ham.”

I've been reading Mark Bechtel's new book "He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back" in which he talks about your earlier years in racing. Tell me about some of the rules you "bent" back in the day. What was the best illegal adjustment you made to a car that NASCAR never found out about?

“We used to get by with a lot, that was part of racing back then. I think the best adjustment that we got away with on a regular basis was using needle bearings in the engine instead of flat bearings. No one would ever find those, so we just made them standard practice. No one was going to take the time to check everything, so we bent the rules where we could.”

How does it feel to be an inaugural inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame? And, on top of that, the Grand Marshal for this year's Daytona 500?

“To be in this first class of the Hall Of Fame is probably the most special thing that has happened to me in my whole career. To be up beside the most influential people in the history of NASCAR is pretty humbling. Daytona has always held a special place with me since I won down there in 1960. This is where racing really got going on the beaches and so forth. I feel honored to be the Grand Marshal at such a big event like the Daytona 500.”

Lots of fans think NASCAR rules are too strict now and that crew chiefs and drivers don't have enough freedom - what do you think about the quality of racing today. Do you think a tight rein by NASCAR officials is good for the sport?

“The racing today is obviously a lot different than in my day. I've always thought that there should be the opportunity to be able to innovate and outwork your competitors to gain an advantage. This is what made it fun and made the racing exciting for the fans. I don't think I would have fared too well with all of these new rules back in my day (laughing). But, what they have been able to do in terms of safety for the drivers is pretty amazing. You have got to keep the racing exciting for the fans. They pay a lot of money to come to these races and they deserve good racing.”

Editor's note: My family and I have sampled Johnson's Morning Rolls, Sweet Potato Biscuits and Buttermilk Biscuits. Though the Morning Rolls were the hands-down favorite (must be the sausage encased in a bunch of flaky biscuit dough), the biscuits were pretty darn tasty too!

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