The irony was not lost on history buffs—at least the small universe of those fluent in the lore of liquor, North Carolina and NASCAR—that Junior Johnson, once busted by the feds for bootlegging, was touring state-owned package stores, selling spirits based on his daddy's recipe—the copper-kettle concoction that required the King of the Speedway to serve nearly a year in an Ohio penitentiary in 1957.
But history has absolved Johnson, whose prowess at eluding the rev'nuers in the North Carolina hills—his "bootleg turn," a gear-grinding, gravel-spraying about-face was chronicled in Tom Wolfe's 1964 Esquire profile, "The Last American Hero"—prepped him to rule NASCAR racing from 1960-1966. Wolfe's piece, a signature work of that era's "New Journalism," also is credited with introducing the term "good ol' boy" to the American lexicon.
And so there he was, the legendary driver and racing team owner—white hair, white teeth, white shirt—at the ABC Store on North Roxboro Road in Durham sitting behind a table covered with a black-and-white checkered cloth. An assembly line of store employees stacked before him glass bottles of Midnight Moon, the labels emblazoned with a car (his 1963 Chevy Impala is on exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History) and their 80-proof contents as clear as the Le Bleu water that Johnson occasionally sipped. Black Sharpie in hand, he signed 300 bottles, combining cursive's hairpin turns, switchbacks and straight-aways into a graceful script.
"Will this put hair on my chest?" I asked Johnson, while reading the label: "Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car."
A man unloading boxes nearby chimed in: "We sell it with a bottle of Nair."
Johnson paused for several seconds, finished signing and grinned.
"You'll have the biggest smile on your face after you drink it."
Matt Council was smiling as he left the store, brown bag in hand. He seemed to acknowledge that as a black man, he stands out in what is traditionally known as a white man's sport: "Believe it or not, I'm a NASCAR fan."
Although those with more tender palates may mix it with fruit juice or Red Bull, Council prefers to drink Midnight Moon straight. "It's too good to mix," he said. "It's smooth, like the label says, between whisky and vodka. I'll go through the bottle this weekend."
Inside, a Durham police officer, his radio squawking on his hip, shook Johnson's hand and said, "I'd love to get a photo," and the two posed for a picture. An elderly man dressed in overalls shyly approached the table with a bottle; another bought a signed case of six and lugged it to the cashier.
After two and a half hours, Johnson was still signing bottles. As one man passed the table, he called out to Johnson: "Don't get writers' cramp."