Garage Series: Tradition collides with a new age
July 16, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Third in a series: NASCAR.com traces the evolution of race shops throughout the years.
By the latter stages of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, NASCAR race shops had begun to undergo a series of transformations. The arrival of series sponsor RJ Reynolds in the early ‘70s had helped bring stability, credibility and an influx of new money into stock car racing’s premier series.
Successful teams had begun to grow, expanding their individual operations as the sport of stock car racing came into its own.
But in spite of the growth, slow as it might have seemed to some, the process that went on inside the walls remained largely unchanged. Time-tested procedures weren’t so easily cast aside, especially when those procedures produced the desired results on the race track.
And nowhere was that more the case than up in the hills of North Carolina at a small, out-of-the-way complex that housed Junior Johnson & Associates.
It was, during its heyday, an unofficial university of sorts for those who studied and learned the trade of making cars go fast.
There’s no question that the organization had some of the sport’s best drivers -- Johnson himself, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip are already enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- but much of their success was also due to work done long before the cars ever hit the track.
Crew chiefs such as Herb Nab, who helped guide Yarborough to Cup titles in 1976-77; Tim Brewer, crew chief for Yarborough’s championship run in ’78 and Waltrip’s first title in ’81; and Jeff Hammond, who won the championship in ’82 and ’85 with Waltrip helped build and sustain one of the most successful operations of its day.
“It was a very, very small shop by the scale of today,” Hammond said of the Johnson compound. “I think people would be totally blown away by how simple that elite type of team was able to race out of during that period.”
Mechanics who worked for Junior Johnson & Associates were known to be quite efficient in their work.
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Hammond, now a NASCAR commentator for FOX Sports, took his first full-time job in the sport when he went to work for Johnson in 1976. He learned firsthand by working alongside men such as Nab and the legendary Johnson. What the shop might have initially lacked in size, it made up for in efficiency, he said.
“It had its own dyno; Junior had his own lathes, crank balancing machines,” Hammond said. “Things like that that you would see at bigger operations like a Holman-Moody.
“Junior had a very simple layout but it was very efficient, because we did so much of it on our own.”
Johnson was very detail-oriented, and he expected the same from his employees. Such care and thoroughness was worth the time and effort -- between 1974 and 1985, Johnson’s drivers won six titles and 88 Cup races.
“All the (engine) block grinding … the rods. Junior would have the rods cast, but he finished them all,” said Hammond. “He’d grind them and shot peen them and balance them himself. That was not something that was done by an outside source. He did all of that and he was very meticulous about how you did that.”
Shot peening reduces the stress that is built up during the grinding process when any metal piece is manufactured. “You have to relieve that stress to keep it from breaking,” Hammond said.
“I guess one of the nuggets as far as my education was concerned was learning how you did that. Because if you didn’t shot peen a rod the way he told you to, if he thought you had your own ideas, he wouldn’t let you do it. … It could take you four hours to do eight connecting rods and do them correctly.”
At that time, the organization fielded one full-time entry and employed perhaps a dozen workers, not including a few that would show up to help out at the track on race weekends.
The biggest change during his tenure, Hammond said, took place prior to the 1981 season when NASCAR downsized its race cars from a 115-inch wheelbase to 112 inches to better resemble those cars on the showroom floor. It was then that the group began to move away from running a single car in multiple races, repairing it when necessary, and instead started constructing multiple cars for use at the different tracks.
Driving Junior Johnson’s car, Cale Yarborough won three consecutive premier series championships from 1976-78.
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Teams had yet to begin building their own chassis in-house, instead relying on companies such as Banjo’s Performance Center (owned by Banjo Matthews), Holman-Moody and Hutcherson-Pagan Enterprises to provide the pieces and repair them when necessary.
“That particular year I think we built 12-14 cars,” Hammond said. “Honestly we got down to where we could just about pick up a (chassis) at Banjo’s, bring it back, hang a body on it and get it to the race track in about two weeks. Fourteen to 20 days, depending on what we were doing to that particular car. Which, at that time, was pretty much unheard of because we were racing and building cars at the same time. Really spitting out a lot of cars.”
By 1984, Junior Johnson & Associates expanded, adding a second full-time team with driver Neil Bonnett. Johnson, wary of the tenuous business climate, agreed to bring in California businessman Warner Hodgdon as a partner as well.
“That began the big expansion,” Hammond said. “Warner really pushed us up to be a lot more ‘spit and polished’ while Junior made sure we stayed focused on what was important, and that was winning races.
“It was a mixed bag of good and bad, because Warner always wanted us in white pants, the elite deal … to look the part. It was a little bit of a hard pill to swallow for Junior, because Junior was Junior. An office over there in what was the new parts house had the big fancy desk in it, the grandfather clock and everything.”
Pavement was put down, the fences that ran alongside the road from the highway to the house upgraded. Eventually, a helipad was built to allow Hodgdon, as well as sponsors, easy access when traveling in from Greensboro, Charlotte or surrounding areas.
“I think that was really the first step we see in Hendrick Motorsports or a Roush Fenway (Racing) today,” Hammond said. “Just a really small step. … Just so many things stepped up, the presentation of being a first-class operation.”
Change had come. But some things weren’t to be trifled with.
“Junior held very firm,” Hammond said, adding that the successful team owner told his new partner, ‘this is my garden; it’s still going to sit here. I’m still going to plow with my mule. … My coon dogs are always going to be over here.’
“It was always a battle between holding fast to tradition yet making it look like it was a first-class operation.”
NASCAR.com writer Kenny Bruce is the president of the National Motorsports Press Association. For more of the Garage Series return to the Mobil 1 Technology Hub in the coming weeks.