Even though his Junior Johnson & Associates team rebounded in 1994 with three victories, its existence was threatened at the end of the season when its two sponsors – Budweiser and McDonald’s – departed.
Johnson almost departed, too. He wasn’t sure the work and effort required to raise sponsorship money and find a capable driver was worth it.
But he struck a deal with Lowe’s. And as his sponsor, the firm wanted to bring in Brett Bodine as the driver and the replacement for Jimmy Spencer.
Johnson had little choice but to agree. But it left him with a keen sense of doubt as to how competitive his team would be in 1995.
He was right. The team was not competitive, not by any means.
Then Johnson got the opportunity to sell. He had done so in the past but the team, at some point, had always returned to his control.
This time, however, it would be different; very different.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.
While Junior Johnson & Associates did win in 1994 – Jimmy won twice and Bill once – it could have been better. But, by the end of the year, things were worse.
I’ve already said how I lost both my sponsors. My contracts with Budweiser and McDonald’s had run out at the end of ’94.
McDonald’s came back with an offer based on performance. My team had to win a certain number of races and a certain number of pole positions to get money.
I couldn’t touch that deal and no one with any sense would. As I have said, I was told to take it or leave it. So I left it.
I thought about quitting racing. I thought about it long and hard. Many of the people who worked for me were discouraged.
And I, personally, had begun to think racing had become too much of a cutthroat business in which costs were rising constantly.
To stay in the sport I had to find both a sponsor and a driver.
I decided to press on. There were several sponsor possibilities of various amounts but I decided to go with Lowe’s. It was a hardware and home improvement company that was started in North Wilkesboro, N.C.
I tried to keep Jimmy as my driver. But the folks at Lowe’s wanted Brett Bodine because they thought he was better at public relations.
I wanted to tell them that public relations does not win races. But it was their money, so what choice did I have?
I don’t know if there was ever a season that gave me as much doubt about our how we would perform than 1995.
When the season started, I wasn’t enthused. I thought the team’s potential was low – and I had never felt that way before.
I knew Brett was a capable driver but, and let’s face it, he hadn’t been able to establish himself as a regular winner, like so many others who had driven for me – Bobby, Cale, Darrell, Bill and even Brett’s brother, Geoff.
Sure enough, the season started badly and got worse. The real problem was that Brett and our crew chief, Mike Beam, were often at odds, which certainly didn’t help matters at all.
Mike left about halfway through the season – ironically, he joined Bill’s team – and we replaced him with Dean Combs. Dean had done some driving in his time and was an able mechanic.
Dean did a good job for us but by the time he came on, honestly, everything was too far gone for anyone to save.
Brett finished in the top 10 twice in 31 races. He wound up 20th in points. I certainly don’t blame him for all of this, but it was the worst-ever record for Junior Johnson & Associates.
Lowe’s was a good sponsor but we just couldn’t win for them.
I pondered getting out of the sport. The questions were how and when was I going to do it?
About halfway through the season Brett came to me and asked me if I would be willing to sell the team.
Well, I had sold it twice before – to the Carling Brewery people and Warner Hodgdon – and had gotten it back. So I said I’d sell it again.
I tried to base my team on the money I was paid for sponsorship. But when I was forced to take all the winnings and plow them back into the team, and then go into my own pockets because there wasn’t enough cash to support the team, there were only two things I could do.
I could shut the team down or I could sell it.
I chose to sell it because it’s not profitable to shut it down.
Lowe’s felt Brett could turn the team around if he owned it and had the say-so to do what he wanted. So the deal was to put Lowe’s money behind him and let him run with it.
Basically, I was selling the team to Lowe’s, which was fine with me.
The deal was official on Nov. 22, 1995. With Lowe’s money Brett bought everything – trucks, cars, equipment, motors, anything that was inside the shops.
Afterward, I didn’t feel any temptation to return to racing. Oh, I got offers but they were low ones – certainly not enough to run a top-flight team.
I could do one of two things: Take the lowball offers and suffer competitively or get out of racing.
I got out.
And I never looked back.
That was then. This is now. I think I might have more stories to tell.