One whole week later, when the goldflake Galaxies and pearlpaint Chevelles and fastback Chargers and Blue Angel Plymouths were gathered for the Southern 500 under the hotwet South Carolina sun at the Darlington International Raceway, they were still talking about it. Little knots of men—mechanics and drivers who couldn't suppress their smiles, grimfaced, image-conscious officials of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, track officials counting their soldout house—all gathered and talked about how that young reallyniceguy, Bobby Allison, Huey-town's Bobby Allison, who lives in a modest brick house and works out of a garage strewn with engine blocks, camshafts and racing pistons right there in his own backyard, who is married to his home-town girl and has three kids who call everybody "sir" and then beat hell out of Daddy on the living room floor every evening, and has that crazy mutt named Underdog; how young, likable Bobby Allison had taken on Curtis Turner a week before at the tight, little (quarter-mile) paved Winston-Salem track and broken just about every rule of racing ethics and morality in one big fender-smashing, bumper-bumping mess. And how when it was finished everybody was expecting ol' Curtis, who has won more stock car races than anyone else in history, who wears a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and Hollywood shades and drinks and carries on and is the original southern good ol' boy maybe more than Junior Johnson even, expecting ol' Curtis to go at young Bobby with his fists and maybe his cowboy boots, too, and nothing happened. Except that one month later, when the racers were in Turner's home town of Charlotte, Curtis invited Bobby to a couple of parties out at his place.
Winston-Salem is not an important race on the NASCAR Grand National calendar. The purse is not large, the points toward the driving championship are not many, but everybody shows up, as they had nine days before that at Columbia, S.C., for a bit of fun at 100 miles around a half-mile dirt track. At that one, Allison, racing in his own red-and-white 1964 Chevelle, sat on the pole, and Turner, in a yellow 1966 Galaxie owned by Junior Johnson, started beside him. Just before the starter's green flag dropped, a strange announcement came over the track loudspeaker. An unidentified person had just offered Turner $500 if he could lead the first lap. Turner went over to Allison and said, in effect, that if Bobby would let him by, $250 of that was for Bobby.
"I didn't think the first lap would mean too much," Allison said, "and so I agreed." But almost immediately the race turned into a seven-car scramble with a whole lot of fender-slapping going on, heavily involving Allison, Turner and David Pearson. "A lot of people thought the Turner thing started right there," Allison said, "but that wasn't so." (The $500 wasn't so, either. Turner did lead the first lap, but later discovered the offer had been a prank.)
At Winston-Salem, Turner got on Allison's tail and started shoving him all around the track. Allison did the only thing he could. He let Turner's Galaxie get past his Chevelle and began bumping Turner, a natural action but a violent breach of etiquette, which states quite clearly, although as informally as the English constitution, that rookies shall not tangle with their elders, especially if that elder happens to be Curtis Turner. It was now Turner's move, and when he got the opportunity he moved in under Allison and hooked him—spun him out. Again Allison retaliated in the only way he could. He spun Turner out. That ended the preliminaries. By now Turner was a bit more than unhappy with the way the evening was going. He waited on Allison and, when he got the chance, clobbered the little Chevelle broadside. Allison limped to the infield with a dead engine. Dead engine? Not on your life. Turner came around again, this time following slowly behind the safety car, which was leading the pack, yellow caution flags fluttering, while the track maintenance crews cleaned up the debris. By now it was difficult to find an unmarked piece of metal on either car. Allison's "dead" engine suddenly roared to life and—bop-po—he returned Turner's compliment by slamming him broadside. Both drivers got out of their wrecked cars and without a word returned to the pits.
November 28, 1966
"I didn't want to do what I did," Allison said, "but I felt I had to. I wasn't happy about it. In fact, I was nervous all the time I was doing it. We really did a job on each other."
That race started and ended the Allison-Turner trouble, apparently with no hard feelings. But NASCAR was not convinced. On the Saturday before Darlington's Labor Day Southern 500, Allison and Turner were paged over the track loudspeaker for an audience with Lin Kuchler, NASCAR executive manager, and Johnny Bruner Sr., a tough old-timer who is the field manager for NASCAR. Kuchler, young and sincere, made a couple of bad jokes and said something like I'm sure there aren't any hard feelings left but if there are let's not tell anybody about them. We love a good image. Now let's shake hands and that will be $100 each, please, for your trouble. Bruner added, "Yeah, I don't imagine there are any hard feelings left, either, but just in case there are, the next time one of you guys tries something like that you both get suspended for the year." End of audience.
On the surface it was a minor incident, one that might happen half a dozen times a year in the rough-and-tumble world of stock car racing. But this one was a bit different, for it strengthened an opinion held by just about every knowledgeable observer in stock car racing—namely, that Bobby Allison of Hueytown, Ala. is on his way to becoming the next superstar of the Grand National circuit, right up there with Lorenzen and Petty and Johnson and Turner and even those heroes of the past—Fireball Roberts and Little Joe Weatherly. Not because he cracked up a car, of course. Anybody can do that. But because he didn't give way, which is often what automobile racing is all about.
For Allison it has been the only way. Until this season, when he decided to compete almost exclusively in the Grand Nationals (the best and richest stock car series, for cars no more than three model-years old), his career had been confined to the modified-sportsman-hobby-amateur circuits—the minor leagues of stock car racing—living with and racing against drivers like Coo Coo Marlin, Friday Hassler, Freddy Fryar, Red Farmer and his brother Donnie. Mostly he drove the little modifieds, which are nothing more than souped-up Ford 427s, Chevrolet 327s or "mystery engines" surrounded by reclaimed junk—1934 Chevy coupes or 1938 Ford sedan bodies or whatever else is available. Humpy Wheeler knows all about that. Humpy works for the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. His job is to get stock car drivers to run on Firestones, and he knows just about everything there is to know about the sport. "Compared to the modified circuit," he says, "Grand National racing is Philadelphia's Main Line, and almost every top driver has known what it's like to live on nothing, making ends meet until maybe the big money comes. Everything a driver has is tied up in his own car. If he blows an engine or crashes, that's it. It's not like a baseball player who breaks his bat. He just takes another one off the rack. The modifieds are a rough world. Not too many other professional athletes have had their lives threatened by a tire wrench, or done their work half-gassed or popping green hornets or bennies because they've got to stay awake to drive three and four nights a week and haul their equipment for eight or nine hours between races. There are so many unwritten rules, especially for rookies—like when you can bump a guy and get away with it, when you can go after the big boys and when you'd better hang back. Things like that. Bobby has broken a lot of these rules, and this is what gets him into trouble, but this is also what will make him great. He's a charger, and chargers are going to win everything in three, four, five years because the engines and the tires are getting so much better that, in the Grand Nationals, what used to be a 500-mile endurance test is getting to be nothing more than a sprint. Allison's got everything—tremendous confidence, especially. There are some drivers who will never get any better, never get out of the modifieds. But they'll never say that about Bobby."
The first impression of Allison when he walks onto a track, dressed in loafers, mechanic's pants and a black nylon jacket, slightly slouched and carrying his racing helmet in a bag like a bowling ball, is that of a shy grasshopper—thin but wiry. He is 28, not old for a race driver, stands 5 feet 11 and after a hefty meal weighs 165 pounds, which is a big improvement over 1955, when he graduated from high school at an anemic 123, too small to do anything except be student manager of the football, basketball and baseball teams. He is a fair bowler (160 average), a proficient water skier, loves to shoot quail and dove at Mud Creek just down below Hueytown, and he neither smokes nor drinks hard liquor, although he is not averse to a beer or two. A Catholic, he worries that he is not sincere enough about his religion, but with his wife, Judy, attends Mass every Sunday, says the blessing before meals with Judy and their three children, David, 5, Bonnie, 3, and Clifford, 2, joining in, and even in restaurants when the kids are quick enough to remind them. At Rockingham, N.C. in October he gave the prerace invocation: he was the first driver ever selected for such an honor. "I was very pleased," Allison said.
Hueytown is a sort of sub-suburb, resting quietly on the outskirts of Bessemer, which in turn rests on the outskirts of Birmingham. Allison's house is modest enough, with three bedrooms and an adjoining carport and a living room loaded with a TV set and other spoils acquired when he was named NASCAR's most popular modified driver of 1965. Trophies—huge trophies—fill up most of one end of the living room. A large pop art painting with a stock car theme, given to Allison as part of a racing prize, does not hang there. Judy put her foot down. The residence occasionally has the feel of a town racing forum. Drivers Red Farmer and Donnie Allison live nearby and stop in frequently, and so do the postman, mechanics from a Chevy garage, a restaurant owner who restores cars and other assorted townspeople.
Allison is a pleasant, articulate conversationalist. He smiles easily, and when he does his hawklike face crumbles into wreaths of wrinkles. But on the rare occasions when he loses his temper his brown eyes close to sharp slits, his mouth hardens and, 165 pounds or not, he suddenly becomes a person you would not want to meet in a back alley—or on the No. 3 turn. "He is basically a hard-nosed guy," says Alf Knight, superintendent of the Atlanta International Raceway, the best-managed major track on the NASCAR circuit. "He don't back off from nobody."
Allison has had plenty of opportunities to substantiate that remark. At Atlanta's Peach Bowl Speedway—a third-of-a-mile asphalt oval run by Ernie Moore, a NASCAR flagman who was once knocked cold when a shock bracket came off a car at the International Raceway south of town and skulled him as he stood in his cage not 10 feet above the start-finish line—Allison is a tremendously popular and respected driver. The popularity is due to his success and his personality. The respect comes from a series of memorable duels, which Moore and other stock car insiders recall with relish, with Joe Lee Johnson (who was a Grand National driver until a day at Darlington when he came into the pits and parked his car in mid-race on learning that his chief mechanic and good friend, Paul McDuffe, had been killed by an out-of-control car).
Bobby Allison: "The first time I raced at the Peach Bowl, in 1959, Joe Lee and I had trouble. He bumpbumpbumped me around and then the caution flag came out and Joe Lee got out of his car and came after me and Ernie stopped him. Then the race restarted and Joe Lee did the same thing until the caution came out again and Joe Lee bounced from his car and Ernie stopped him once more. So finally in 1964 the same thing happened all over again and we stopped and got out of our racers and went at each other. Joe Lee's a pretty big fellow, but all I had to do was throw one good punch and there were 50 guys ready to climb over my back to get at him."
Later, at Huntsville, Ala., Allison ran across four drivers one night who joined in a team to get him good. They stayed with him at all times, weaving in and out, blocking him and bumping him. Allison went to the starter after the evening's first heats and said something about wasn't it strange that they qualified at 14 seconds per lap but were running only 18 seconds in the heats.
"I don't see anything," the starter said, straight-faced.
"Thank you," said Allison. "That's all I need."
He went to each of the four drivers and gave a little speech. "Look," he said, "I'm not asking you to give way, but when I come up behind you pick your lane and stay there. This track's wide enough for two cars. If I can get by you, fine. If I can't, fine. Just give me room."
"I don't know what you're talking about," each of them said.
In the remaining heat races it became apparent the four did indeed know what Allison was talking about. They knocked him all over the place and blocked him and cut him off, and in the consolation race their hotshot drove Allison into the wall.
Allison didn't say a word. He went to the starter and said, "I want to run the feature. Give me 10 minutes and I'll have my car ready."
"Forget it," said the starter. "You don't get nothin'!" So Allison went to his pits, got his car ready and entered the feature on the 17th lap. There were three of the four "team" drivers left, and in short order Allison a) bumped No. 1 out of contention, b) spun No. 2 into the infield and c) waited on No. 3, the hotshot, and stayed with him until the right moment, then yanked his steering wheel sharply to the right and they both went hard into the wall—at the exact spot where Allison had gone in earlier. NASCAR took unkindly to that, too—$100 worth—but, as Allison said, "I never had any more trouble with them."
At the Martinsville 300, a rare modified appearance for Allison late this season, Lee Roy Yarbrough, another Grand National regular slumming it with the modifieds, quickly got on Allison's bumper and shoved him several times shortly after the start, and finally, in the No. 4 turn, nicked Allison in the left rear and spun him out. "I stopped spinning in a backward position," said Allison, "and saw Lee Roy out of the corner of my eye stalled in the infield. I put in the clutch, and the car's momentum carried me into his rear end." The Yarbrough car started to smoke badly. End of the race for Lee Roy; Allison was able to restart.
In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck takes nearly 250 pages to tell of the grandeur of his American odyssey, but near his journey's end he writes: "The road became an endless stone ribbon, the hills obstructions, the trees green blurs, the people simply moving figures with heads but no faces. All the food along the way tasted like soup; even the soup.... There was no night, no day, no distance." In these lines Steinbeck might have been paraphrasing Allison. In the South the modified circuit runs in a long, sweeping, haphazard curve from Baton Rouge in Louisiana up through Mississippi and into Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., into Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., back down to Atlanta and Macon and Augusta, Ga., through the Carolinas—everywhere in the Carolinas—and finally Virginia, through Martinsville and as far north as Richmond. For Allison the past eight years have meant being on the road continuously, a rapid succession of rooming houses and cheap garage apartments, catching sleep whenever he could between races, racing in Mobile on Friday night, Montgomery on Saturday and Birmingham on Sunday, racing for three to five nights a week to keep enough money on hand to do it all over again the next week, eating undercooked bacon and overcooked eggs at the Eagle Grill and Sue's Hamburger Shop and Tommy's Wayside Inn. But mainly driving all night or all day to get to a city just in time to wheel the racer off the trailer and qualify, hoping he wouldn't fall asleep at the wrong time, as he did one night on swamp-lined U.S. 17 between Brunswick and Savannah. He awoke and shuddered to a stop not more than 10 feet from the front of a big semi that had been frantically blinking its lights and honking its horn while Allison, slumped over the steering wheel, quietly tooled down the wrong side of the road. Or other times, when he would fall asleep in the driver's seat and Judy would reach over and punch and jab at the steering wheel and accelerator and keep the car on the road as best she could.
The modifieds are at the lower end of racing's social spectrum. The drivers know it, the fans know it and some promoters take advantage of it. In 1960, Allison's second full year of modified racing, he went to Richmond for a 400-lap race without enough money even to buy tires for his car. He borrowed a set and put up a magneto and a carburetor against the prize money as collateral, then finished 12 laps in front of the second-place car. When the race was over, the second-place man, a local driver, made a visual protest, claiming that Allison's car did not have a legal fire wall. Allison was over a barrel. He was several hundred miles from home, he was broke and the "friend" who had loaned him the tires was screaming for Allison's magneto and carburetor, worth about three times the value of the tires. The protest was illegal to begin with—visual protests, which involve the question of legal equipment, have to be made before a race even begins—and invalid, but the NASCAR steward in charge of the race didn't relent until Bobby had paid the runner-up $100 blackmail money to withdraw the protest.
The promoters do take risks; they put on shows and depend on good crowds to take them out of the red. When the crowds are small, the drivers are often asked to forego their appearance fees and take a cut in the prize money. The drivers have no alternative (half a loaf is better than none and, besides, we need something to show for this weekend) but to accept the cut against the day when the crowds will be better. But the next time, though the house may be full, the promoters conveniently forget.
Robert Arthur Allison was born in Miami, the fourth oldest of 10 children of a service-station equipment supplier. His grandfather took him to his first race for modified sportsmen at the nearby Opa Locka Speedway when he was 9, and as far as he was concerned, at least, there was little doubt from then on that he would one day race cars himself. He was driving his father's 1949 Studebaker pickup by the time he was 12, and got a Florida driver's license the day he turned 14.
In high school, cars quickly became a passion. He bought a jalopy. On the way to and from school with a group of friends he often drove into empty fields and practiced spinning the car or burning figure eights with the screaming rear tires. In the spring of his senior year he received the reluctant permission of his parents to enter an amateur race at the nearby Hialeah Speedway. "Once I got them by the first hurdle," he recalls "the others became easier." Allison finished a heady 10th in a field of 55 in his first race, for jalopies, but although he took several heat races that spring, he never won a feature. "I did set a couple of records, though. I was the first amateur driver to roll a car at Hialeah, and then the first to roll one twice."
At his high school graduation, after this inauspicious start, Allison postponed his racing career to take a job testing outboard engines for Mercury in Oshkosh, Wis. and Sarasota, Fla. He did nothing to distinguish himself except nearly freeze to death in Lake Winnebago one winter day when heavy swells sank his boat in 18 weather. He survived that, but not the cantakerous disposition of the Mercury boss, Carl Kiekhaefer, and in June of 1956 returned to Miami.
By then he had learned the skills of a master mechanic. He opened a garage and for the next two years developed this talent further. In 1958 he worked out a deal to service a modified in exchange for a ride in a hobby car, a racer that may be described as a jalopy with a street engine. His parents, alas, now raised strong objections, so he went underground. From June until September they never suspected that a fellow named Robert Sunderman, whose name kept appearing in the Hollywood, Fla. racetrack results, was in real life their very own son, Robert Arthur. He was innocently betrayed at dinner one evening by his younger brother, Tommy, who had gone to work at Hollywood so he could see his big brother race. By then Allison had built his first modified, a '34 Chevy coupe, and was racing whenever he could in the Miami area.
During this period two events took place that had a profound effect on his life, both professionally and personally. In September, 1958, he crashed at Hollywood and his car caught fire. A young blonde in the crowd, Judy Bjorkman, who was sitting with a friend of Allison's, became terribly upset. The friend figured that if a girl could be so unnerved about a thing like that without even knowing the driver, the least he could do was arrange an introduction. Just over a year later, Judy and Bobby were married.
The following spring he and another man were lifting an automatic transmission from a car on a hoist in Allison's garage when his helper suddenly shouted, "I can't hold it!" Allison couldn't let go and his left hand was crushed beneath the heavy weight of the transmission. He was on the involuntarily retired list for nine weeks. "I decided right there," Allison said, "that if I was going to get hurt, I might as well get hurt doing something I like." When he was again operational, he returned to the modified circuit.
He won two features that year, raised his total to seven in 1960, 33 in 1961. The next year he began an amazing string, winning the national modified-special championship (a category within a category) in 1962 and 1963, and the modified title itself in 1964 and 1965.
He rarely entered Grand National events—three in 1961 and eight in 1965. "But," Allison said, "the choice was between a good modified car and a junker in the Grand Nationals, and I didn't feel it would be worth it just to say I had driven a Grand National every week."
In the meantime, Allison became the king of the bush leagues. "I figure I drove over 80 different tracks," he says. "When I would go to a city, I ran against drivers who were pretty good in their area, but, with all that traveling, there wasn't a track anywhere I wasn't familiar with. It had to give me an edge."
Last winter Allison made his decision to leave the minors pretty much behind and concentrate on the Grand Nationals. His entree was Mrs. Betty Lilly, the invalid wife of a Valdosta, Ga. realtor, who had been the sponsor of Sam McQuagg, NASCAR's 1965 Rookie of the Year. When McQuagg got a better ride for the 1966 season, Allison signed on with Mrs. Lilly. But after several months of financial haggling, he broke with her. The next day he bought a 1964 Chevelle and went home to Hueytown to make a Grand National racer out of it. Just 16 days and nights and more than $6,000 later the job was done. He and his brothers, Eddie and Donnie, plus crew member Chuck Looney, had put together a 180-mph brute.
Allison's first full season in the big time was to be a strange one. "This year has been the greatest joy and the greatest heartbreak, the greatest success and the greatest failure of any," he says. The success and joy came for the first times at Oxford, Me. and Islip, N.Y. during a northern tour in July when Bobby won the first two Grand Nationals of his career. There were also intoxicating moments in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Va. in September, where he passed Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and Fred Lorenzen within 23 laps to take the lead in the race—only to lose with a blown engine bare laps from the end.
The heartbreak and failure came because he raced as an independent, not a factory-team driver for Plymouth, Dodge, Ford or Mercury. To the fan in the stands the differences between factory and home-built cars may seem minute, but in a game where each little part and each little gimmick can add hunks of speed, the differences are real—and crucial. The factory men almost always win. After the Curtis Turner bumping incident at Winston-Salem, Turner merely turned over his car to an expert group of mechanics and bodymen under the guidance of Junior Johnson, who is one of Ford's men, and didn't worry about anything until he showed up at Darlington the next week. Allison, on the other hand, drove the 550 miles back to Hueytown that very night and worked frantically for four days putting his car back together. He missed the regular inspection day at Darlington and the first day of qualifying, and wound up running (and winning) a qualifying race on the last day possible to get into the big show. The parts Allison winds up with are not always perfect. As brother Eddie wryly put it, "Quality control ain't all it's cracked up to be."
All of this has produced in Allison a sort of optimistic stoicism born of innate confidence, rugged experience and the clear knowledge that in due time he will cross that thin, thin line that separates the Grand National would-bes and winners. "Everything has its bad moments," he says. "I guess I just feel that when things are going badly they'll eventually take a turn for the good."
How bad can it get? In the space of two weeks last month—before and after the National 500 at Charlotte—Bobby was disturbed because he couldn't discover the cause of an unexpected blown engine, could not obtain vital parts for another engine he was rebuilding, had wiped out his racing budget to pay another parts bill, had been ridiculously overcharged at a Charlotte motel, had learned that Judy was expecting Junior Allison No. 4, and had driven 650 miles to Martinsville for the privilege of tangling with Lee Roy Yarbrough. Said Bobby's brother Eddie: "It's a good thing racing's fun."
But the bad part now appears to be behind Allison forever. At least three groups have approached him about factory—or at least well-financed—rides for next year. If one of these materializes, as it surely must, then 1967 will be a good deal more fun, and Eddie will be able to take his tongue out of his cheek.