Brave In Life: Junior Johnson Cheats Death Again

NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson is back home and recovering slowly from a staph infection contracted during back surgery several weeks ago. The infection has not gone away but it is contained. Photo courtesy of Tom Higgins.

Only when he lies flat on his back does Junior Johnson feel no pain.

He can walk for a little more than 10 minutes before he begins to feel winded.

Food does not taste good and he has trouble swallowing.

Nevertheless, Johnson, the 81-year-old former NASCAR driver and team owner, does not complain. He’ll tell you it is better than the alternative.

“Reckon the Lord thought it wasn’t my time yet,” said Johnson, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees, “for which I am grateful.”

Johnson came to the brink of death after contracting a raging staph infection at a North Carolina hospital.

Johnson entered the hospital in the first week of March to undergo another back surgery.

He had a similar operation performed several months earlier – his second, incidentally. But just three months afterward he injured his back again.

Johnson said he was using a forklift on his farm in Yadkin County, N.C. While he attempted to remove a tree, the vehicle’s prongs got tangled.

The forklift titled over with Johnson in it.

“Because of that my back got injured again,” Johnson said, adding that the metal rods installed in his back last year had been displaced, or in his words,  “broken.”

It was during the third round of back surgery that Johnson contracted the infection.

“I don’t know if it happened because of a dirty scalpel, or other piece of equipment or maybe it was because of a dirty needle,” he said. “But I do know that for about 35 minutes there, I was dead.”

Johnson added he could pinpoint the amount of time he was gone because “it took them 35 minutes to get all the equipment I needed to live hooked into me.”

Once revived, Johnson was taken to the intensive care unit and put into isolation. He remained there for five weeks.

“Either the staph was going to get me or I was going to get the staph,” Johnson said. “I’m much better now, but I sill have the infection. It’s still inside me.”

Johnson takes a daily regimen of medication to keep the infection at bay.

Obviously, the surgery to repair his back has not been performed.

“Those rods are still broken,” Johnson said. He is still in pain. While sitting he moves around a lot to find temporary comfort.

But he admitted he’s most comfortable when he can stretch out on a couch. There is no pain.

Johnson won 50 races as a driver and 132 as a team owner, along with six Winston Cup championships earned by drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip – both of who are also in the Hall of Fame.

Johnson said his plans for the immediate future remain unaltered. He and his family will move to Charlotte in June, where they have already bought a house and will become neighbors to such NASCAR notables as team owners Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates.

“I can’t really keep up with the farm any longer and don’t really want to,” said Johnson, who also owns cattle. “Besides, (son) Robert is going to Duke in the fall and (daughter) Meredith is already enrolled in a Charlotte high school.

“Most of the time, it will be just the two of us, my wife Lisa and I. We’re looking forward to living in Charlotte. It will be just the two of us, but living there will mean we’ll be a lot closer to a lot of different things.”

Johnson said his farm is yet to be sold, despite rumors that it had been purchased by a local winery. He’s confident that an owner – or owners – will be found.

Johnson said he feels better each day, but, obviously, he will require more medical attention – none of which he can receive until it’s certain he no longer has the infection.

Johnson admits he needs, and wants, a pacemaker.

“It’s something I have to have because my heart has an irregular heartbeat,” he said.

Johnson expressed his gratitude for the concerns and prayers offered him from people around the world. He insisted he would maintain his activities as best he can.

“You know, if I stop and think about it,” he said, “I’m 81 years old now and I think I’ve had a pretty good outing.”



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