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Issue 57 - Driven round the bend

Whisky Magazine Issue 57
July 2006


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Driven round the bend

The Last American Hero is an affectionate, whimsical and admiring snapshot of an independent American South. Jefferson Chase reports

Like many readers, I suspect, I greatly enjoyed Jim Leggett's cover story on moonshining, NASCAR racing and the American South in issue 52. So I was intrigued when I stumbled across an article by Tom Wolfe, originally published in Esquire in March 1965, on the same topic.

The Last American Hero is a profile of Junior Johnson, a convicted bootlegger and legendary 1960s stock-car driver who discovered the now-standard technique of drafting, i.e. using a lead car to create a vacuum and increase speed.

I got that last bit of info from one of many Johnson fan websites. Actually I was never much interested in a sport that seemed to me to appeal primarily to the proudly half-literate and the would-be deaf.

Wolfe's essay, though, changed my mind somewhat.

Driving a stock car does not require much handling ability, at least not as compared to Grand Prix racing, because the tracks are simple banked ovals and there is almost no shifting of gears. So qualifying becomes a test of raw nerve – of how fast a man is willing to take a curve. Many of the top drivers in competition are willing to calculate their risks only against the risks the other drivers are taking. Junior takes the pure risk as no other driver has ever taken it.

Or in other words, if you want to compete in a sport where winners have to be willing to start skidding as they go into curves and, if need be, ram adversaries into the wall, you need the right stuff.

There's none of the sarcasm here that the Southern-born W...

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