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Joe Lee Johnson
Born: September 11, 1929      Died: May 26, 2005
Home: Chattanooga, TN

 

Joe Lee Johnson was a NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup Series) driver who won the inaugural World 600 in 1960. He was also the 1959 NASCAR Convertible Division champion. He made his last NASCAR start in 1962. He was the owner of the Cleveland Speedway in Cleveland Tennessee. He is no relation to Junior Johnson or Jimmie Johnson.

 

Joe Lee Johnson? First 600 winner

TOM HIGGINS' SCUFFS 

Saturday, Apr. 18, 2009
- ThatsRacin.com Blogger

We were wading little Hemphill Creek, which cascades from the eastern flank of mighty Mount Mitchell.

My dad and I were in the cold water flowing off the highest peak in Eastern America, trying to catch small, but beautifully-colored brook trout.

The date was June 18, 1960, a Sunday.

I had driven to the Blue Ridge Mountains from Winston-Salem, where I worked in the sports department at the Journal-Sentinel newspaper, to visit my parents in Yancey County, N.C. My father, M.B. “Pappy” Higgins, was the county game warden. He’d taken the day off to go fishing with me that afternoon.

We caught a few trout and decided to quit well before dusk made getting down the steep streamside trail tricky.

As we walked from the fragrant forest to my car, I said, “I wonder who won that big 600-mile NASCAR race today in Charlotte?”

Pap replied, “There was a race in Charlotte?”

He was not in to motorsports.

The memory of those hours and the conversation with my Pap, who died in 1994 at age 92, rise anew because the 50th running of the 600 looms on May 24.

In 1960 the race was known as the World 600 and the new 1.5-mile track as Charlotte Motor Speedway. For some years now the names have been the Coca-Cola 600 and Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

Because we were in such a deep hollow between rugged mountain ridges, my car’s radio wouldn’t pick up a signal as I tried to find a newscast that would reveal what driver had won the race.

I was intrigued because so much controversy had surrounded the event and the speedway built by Bruton Smith and legendary driver Curtis Turner. My colleagues at the Journal-Sentinel, Hank Schoolfield and Herman Hickman, both deceased, had covered the developments splendidly, including an incident in which Turner confronted construction crews with a pistol. Their company was balking at continuing work because of non-payment of bills by Smith and Turner.

The grading and paving went on, but not in time for the 600 to be run on its original date, Memorial Day weekend.

With Pap’s consent, I drove up a twisting gravel road to the Blue Ridge Parkway, hoping to find news on the radio. Finally, at an overlook with an expansive view of the Piedmont, I found a station in either Marion or Morganton.

“The first World 600 in Charlotte was won today by Joe Lee Johnson,” reported a newscaster.

“Dummy!” I yelled. “You mean Junior Johnson!”

Turns out I was the dummy.


Little-known Joe Lee Johnson indeed had driven to victory in what remains NASCAR’s longest race. And Junior Johnson, the famous moonshine-hauler-turned-racer, the winner of 1960’s Daytona 500?

Well, that’s getting a bit ahead of the story. Finally, the paving was finished and the track deemed fit for racing. Or so most thought. There were awful problems with the asphalt. It was not stable.

A story has persisted for five decades now that some of the trouble was created by Turner. Looking at the track, the tale goes, Turner couldn’t resist turning some hot laps before the pavement had “cured.”

Whatever the case, the track tore apart in chunks once the drivers and their cars got on it. Large pieces of asphalt flew so ominously during practice and time trials that the teams put sturdy deflectors made of metal on the cars in front of the grilles and windshields.

“We looked like we were going into a World War Two battle,” recalls Junior Johnson. The deflectors worked for only a few.

Gaping holes in the pavement caused blown tires, broken suspensions and wrecks. The attrition rate was terrific.

Prior to the 600 NASCAR founder and president Big Bill France pronounced the rules for the day during the drivers’ meeting.

High among them: There was to be no cutting across the grass between the frontstretch racing surface and pit road to get into the pits. Whatever trouble they experienced, drivers had to go all the way around and make their entrance to the pits off the fourth turn.

Several, including star drivers Bob Welborn, Junior Johnson, Lee and Richard Petty, ignored France’s order and drove across the grass to pit after experiencing tire failures. Despite the violations, NASCAR officials allowed them to continue racing. Meanwhile, car after car was sidelined.

Fireball Roberts, Tom Pistone, Junior Johnson, Turner and Jack Smith took turns in the lead. Smith, a popular Georgian known as “Cracker Jack,” took the front on the 160th of the event’s 400 laps and drove away to a commanding five-lap lead. He appeared home free.But a shrapnel-shaped shard of asphalt punctured the fuel tank of Smith’s Pontiac, fielded by Bud Moore.

The crew resorted to desperate measures to seal the hole—chewing gum, rags and even a bar of Octagon soap. Nothing worked. On lap 352 Smith was done. Even so, he finished 12th. That gave the lead to Joe Lee Johnson, and he nursed his Chevrolet to a four-lap victory over runner-up Johnny Beauchamp.

It was the second—and last—triumph for the lanky Tennessean in 55 starts. He retired from racing after the 1962 season and died in 2005 at age 75.

Lee Petty, a three-time champion on NASCAR’s top level, recalled chaos after the 600 was over.

“Back in those days, we went to get our purse money at a NASCAR ‘pay window’ before we went home,” Petty, who passed away in 2000 at age 86, once related to me. “I was in line and the NASCAR guy handing out the cash said, ‘What the hell are you doing here!?’ I said, ‘I’m here to get paid.’ He said, ‘You ain’t got no pay. You were disqualified.’

“Damned if NASCAR hadn’t let me and Richard and the others that cut across the grass stay on the track runnin’, risking our lives and cars, without black-flagging us out of the race.

“They waited four days to make it official we’d been disqualified. It’s one of the dirtiest things NASCAR ever did. “I guess they figured they needed as many cars runnin’ at the finish as possible, ‘cause the field was getting mighty thin.”

Indeed. Only 16 of the 60 starters were still motoring when the checkered flag waved.

“It has been 50 years, but I’m still hot about how NASCAR handled that disqualification mess,” Junior Johnson said a few days ago. “I run my butt off in that race, and got zero money. “That whole first race at Charlotte beat about anything I’ve ever seen.”

I loved fishing with my Pap. But we could have gone to Hemphill Creek another time. I'll forever regret missing that first 600.


 
Bruton Smith (Middle) and Curtis Turner (R), track owner's in 1960

Obituary

Johnson, Joe Lee
NASCAR legend From Cleveland

posted May 26, 2005

Joe Lee Johnson, 75, died in a Chattanooga hospital on Thursday morning, after a battle with cancer. He was of the Baptist faith. 

He was the owner of Cleveland Speedway Inc., in Cleveland. He was the inaugural winner of the World 600, in Charlotte, N.C., in 1960, and held numerous other racing titles. He was a pioneer in the early days of NASCAR.

He was preceded in death by his first wife of 37 years, Jean Johnson; sister, Mildred Smith, and brothers, Arby, James, Olin Jr., Floyd and Loyd, and Hubert Johnson. He is survived by his current wife, Gladys Johnson, of Cleveland; sons, David Johnson of Ooltewah, Ronnie Johnson and wife Pat, of Chattanooga, Kathy Harvey and husband Ed, of Signal Mtn., and Donna Burcham and husband Bobby, of Chattanooga; grandchildren, Chris Burcham, Lauren Harvey, Monica Harvey, Joanne Chappell and Mike Johnson; several great-grandchildren; one brother, Donald G. Johnson; sisters, Gladys Broyles, Dorothy York, Doris Downey,  Debbie Shackleford and Jeanette Hughes, all of Chattanooga.

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the East Chapel of Chattanooga Funeral Home with the Rev. Luther Eslinger officiating. Interment will be in Lakewood Memory Gardens, East.

Pallbearers are Lance Johnson, Chris Burcham, Wayne "Tiny" Bass, Randall Hicks, Darrell Works and Tommy Hicks. Honorary pallbearers are Todd Morrow, Paul Tims, Bobby Doss, Nick Yancey, Dewayne Powell, Jerry Meadows, T.A. Hicks, Leonard Hilton and Gene Stinson.

The family will receive friends after 2 p.m. on Saturday at the East Chapel of Chattanooga Funeral Home, Crematory and Florist, 404 South Moore Road. Memorial contributions may be made to the Bradley County Humane Society. Please share your thoughts and memories at  Mem.com .

 

 Joe Lee Johnson Grand National Statistics

Year Age Races Win T5 T10 Pole Laps Led Earnings Rank AvSt AvFn
1956 26 0 of 56 0 0 0 0 0 0 0    
1957 27 2 of 53 0 0 0 0 63 0 175 92 20.0 28.5
1958 28 6 of 51 0 1 3 0 989 0 1,210 91 22.3 11.5
1959 29 12 of 44 1 3 6 0 2743 1 6,807 70 14.8 15.2
1960 30 22 of 44 1 6 8 0 3453 48 34,519 13 14.1 19.0
1961 31 9 of 52 0 0 3 0 1276 0 2,615 46 16.9 21.2
1962 32 4 of 53 0 0 0 0 381 0 340 93 15.2 22.5
7 years 55 2 10 20 0 8905 49 45,666   15.9 18.3

Joe Lee Johnson Convertible Series Stats (1959 CHAMPION)

Year Age Races Win T5 T10 Pole Laps Led Earnings Rank AvSt AvFn
1958 28 2 of 19 0 0 1 0 243 0 150   13.5 14.5
1959 29 14 of 15 2 7 9 0 2356 124 7,056 1 9.6 8.8
2 years 16 2 7 10 0 2599 124 7,206   10.1 9.5

 


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