Rough trip in a battered luxury liner

Luckless Bobby Allison piloted a T-bird through a storm of mishaps at Daytona to end three years of missing the boat
February 27, 1978

In winning last Sunday's Daytona 500 by 33.2 seconds, Bobby Allison survived or otherwise overcame 1) a personal slump spanning nearly three years, during which he agonized over and outlived a slow Mercury and an even slower Matador; 2) a Daytona jinx during which, despite being one of NASCAR's very best drivers, he had somehow managed not to win the 500 in the 18 times he tried; 3) his car—a Thunderbird, believe it or not—which hadn't been seen on a stock-car track since 1960, when the last Thunderbird racer was a convertible; 4) a crash in Thursday's qualifying heat when Buddy Baker slid in an oil slick and smashed into Allison, putting them both out of that race and sentencing the Bud Moore crew, which takes care of Allison's "luxury liner," to 18 hours of hard labor; 5) a crash on the 68th lap of the 500 in which he bumped Ron Hutcherson while avoiding a melee that knocked A. J. Foyt's Buick end over end; 6) another crash in which he was squeezed between Hutcherson and the wall at 185 mph, hit them both, the impact on the left side knocking his steering wheel out of kilter for the remainder of the race, the impact on the right bending the front fender into the tire, which one lap later caused 7) a blowout.

Allison's slump had been one of the worst in recent NASCAR history, and during those three losing years he had often been depressed, discouraged and troubled by self-doubt. But he was satisfied Sunday, and he deserved to be. "To some people it seems like I enjoy failing," he said, "but that's really not the case. I'm so tickled now I can't see straight."

Allison had begun the race from the 33rd position on the grid and spent the early stages straggling along behind such as King Richard Petty in a Dodge, hot young Darrell Waltrip in a Chevy and 1976 Daytona winner David Pearson in a Mercury. The first 60 laps went off at a record speed with no caution flags—that, too, a record—until Petty's right rear tire blew as he led Waltrip and Pearson out of Turn 4. Petty got sideways, Pearson hit Waltrip, Waltrip hit Petty, and all three were out, although Waltrip, chasing championship points, eventually finished the race 62 laps back, his Monte Carlo somewhat truncated.

NASCAR champion Cale Yarborough, in an Oldsmobile, inherited the lead at that point with Benny Parsons, also in an Oldsmobile, second. Then Parsons blew a tire and spun in Turn 1. In avoiding Parsons, Lennie Pond tapped Foyt, whose Buick took off and began flipping. Foyt's teammate Hutcherson and Allison also collided, although not seriously, but Parsons lost two laps. Foyt was admitted to the hospital for observation, X-rayed and was pronounced shaken up but otherwise unhurt.

When the green light came on after that smash-up, Buddy Baker—another Oldsmobile driver—Allison and Yarborough took over where Petty, Waltrip and Pearson had left off, running nose to tail. On the 117th lap, Allison, lapping Hutcherson, got squeezed against the wall and banged up both sides of the Thunderbird, forcing him to pit to change a tire. Yarborough began dropping back with a misfire, Baker got a flat, and another yellow came out. When the green came on again, there were 18 laps remaining and Allison led Baker by a mere 1.6 seconds. Baker caught and passed him in traffic, but Allison shortly repassed Baker. In their long careers neither had won Daytona and it was a toss-up as to who wanted it more. But with four laps remaining, Baker's engine blew, and the $56,300 first prize was Allison's. Yarborough and Parsons followed him across.

Baker's late-race frustration was nothing new. In 1973 he had also been leading the 500 when an engine blew. Baker may have said the same thing then that he did after Sunday's 500: "It looked like I was going to run away with it. Then that oil-pressure needle started dropping and so did my heart. All of a sudden I felt like crying. Damn, what have I got to do to win here?"

In the last three years Allison, too, must have often felt like crying. Also his friends. The night before the race, frying fresh flounder by a camper in the parking lot, one of them described the growing feeling about Allison. "I loved Bobby like a brother," he said. "I stuck with him when he drove that Mercury and couldn't win. I stuck with him all last year when he drove that turkey of a Matador. But this year, when he switched to a Thunderbird, a damn Thunderbird, well, I just gave up on him."

The days leading up to the race had been full of intrigue, as usual, much of it centering on competition for the pole and none of it involving Allison. After three days of practice, the two fastest cars were Foyt's Buick at 186.297 mph, and Yarborough's Oldsmobile at 185.951. The speeds were slower than last year's, and the crews had to sweat to reach them because the new cars, especially the Oldsmobiles, weren't handling well. But in the warmup session before the official qualifying began, Yarborough cracked off a startling lap of 190 mph. "Maybe we'll have to talk with Cale," said Parsons, Yarborough's quasi-teammate (they have the same sponsor). "He seems to have hit on something."

What Yarborough had hit on—which Parsons knew full well—was a tricky rear spoiler, the strip of aluminum rising from the back of the trunk. The NASCAR rule book says of spoilers, "In the interest of safety and handling characteristics, a non-adjustable spoiler not exceeding three inches in height may be attached to the rear deck lid." The legality of Yarborough's spoiler was arguable. It was approximately 4½ inches high, but because it was swept back, the edge was only about three inches above the trunk, which brought it within the ball park of the rules. Competition Director Bill Gazaway couldn't help but notice the spoiler of course, and he made Yarborough trim off about one-quarter inch. But even after the retrenchment, Yarborough's spoiler was nearly half again the size of anyone else's. Gazaway allowed him to use it in qualifying, and he went out and won the pole at 187.536 mph.

NASCAR officials knew that the pole would likely go to Yarborough or Foyt. Yarborough, the NASCAR champion and a diplomat, is their golden boy; Foyt, a USAC star and obstinate, is a thorn in their side. Foyt loves to come down South and beat the stock-car boys at their own game, and when he does he usually gloats about it. "That ain't real racin' NASCAR does," he says. "Them big ol' stock cars is like taxicabs." NASCAR officials, in particular Gazaway, must grind their teeth in their sleep hearing things like that, especially from Foyt, who has a leg to stand on. So it was not likely that NASCAR was going to help Foyt win the pole at their biggest race by taking away an edge that Yarborough cheated fair and square to get.

"If they can get away with it, it's legal," said one of Parsons' mechanics, expressing the working, if not official, attitude toward such matters. The rule-book phrase "in the interest of safety" covers NASCAR in its flexible enforcement of the rules. Junior Johnson, owner and crew chief of Yarborough's car, convinced Gazaway that the Oldsmobile needed the spoiler for stability. Of course it was suggested to Yarborough that if his car was unstable at 186 without the big spoiler, then maybe he should slow down to 184, but such suggestions are laughed at by real racers, and Yarborough is nothing if not a real racer.

Because of a time-consuming slide in Turn 1, Foyt only qualified third fastest anyhow, but Hutcherson qualified second. Hutcherson just smiled when asked why he—or Foyt, as the owner of Hutcherson's Buick—didn't object more strenuously to Yarborough's spoiler. He knows that an ARCA driver from Iowa does not successfully protest the NASCAR champion in a NASCAR race.

Ironically, Yarborough had said the week before qualifying, "I'm not taking anything away from A.J., but he's won some poles that wasn't quite legal. It doesn't bother me. When he comes down here I put him in the same group as the others—I expect to beat him."

After Yarborough had won the first race of the year, the Riverside (Calif.) road race, Johnson had said of Cale's Oldsmobile, apparently meaning every word of it, "This is a special car. It wasn't just throwed together. We spent a lot of sleepless nights on it." The speculation among the mechanics was that a lot more than the spoiler was "special" about Yarborough's Oldsmobile. Said one, gazing at the spoiler and at Johnson almost reverently, "See that fat man in the T shirt over there? He looks kind of dumb, don't he? Ha! Dumb like a fox. There ain't much he don't know about setting up a race car and getting it past Gazaway." Said another, "Junior's been around a long time. He knows all the tricks, and that's part of the game. He got away with it this time, but he's been caught a lot of times." Most recently last year, when he was caught two races in a row with an expanding oversized gas tank.

After the first qualifying runs a week before the race, Gazaway lifted the three-inch-spoiler rule and told the crews they would be free to experiment on Monday. But on Tuesday morning he announced, "We are making no changes in the spoiler rules for Grand National cars at this time," and it was back to three inches for everyone, including Yarborough. NASCAR had quietly gotten exactly what it wanted: the spoiler issue, for all practical purposes, was water under the bridge; Yarborough was on the pole, and Foyt was not.

The reason the spoiler had been so critical in the first place was because it corrected the skittish handling generally attributed to the large, triangular opera window in the Oldsmobile. It seemed the window worked to lighten the load on the rear wheels at 190 mph; the spoiler catches airflow and exerts a compensating down force on the rear. The Buicks have an opera window only about half as large, and are more stable than the Oldsmobiles. But because the Buick's nose is flatter and not as clean aerodynamically as the Oldsmobile's, the Olds had a higher top speed—so it was a trade-off.

The Oldsmobiles' handling the first few days had been downright scary for some. Yarborough had been complaining the most, although only Yarborough knew whether his complaints were genuine or sandbagging. "Terrible," he would mutter, shaking his head dramatically as he walked away from the car. But after he found himself on the pole, his smile was ready again. Exercising his gift for repartee, he answered reporters' questions with one-liners. What could he do about the car's loose handling come race day? "Tighten up the seat belt." How did the car handle in traffic? "I don't know; I haven't got up the courage to get close to any other cars out there." What do you call that big window? "Can't print what I call it."

The Oldsmobiles and Buicks were appearing on the NASCAR circuit for the first time in nearly 20 years, a result of a NASCAR rule change allowing Chevrolet engines to be used in those models, which itself was a result of the successful lawsuit by the disgruntled man who bought an expensive Oldsmobile only to discover it had a Chevrolet engine. "Common practice," replied General Motors, which of course only became common knowledge after they were sued. Since NASCAR's eligibility rules are based on Detroit's specifications, the Chevy-powered Oldsmobiles and Buicks became both legal and viable.

And as the race worked out for Yarborough, Parsons and Hutcherson—who hung on to finish fourth—"viable" meant very good but not quite in the luxury-liner class.

PHOTOForeshadowing the outcome of the 500, Allison leads Yarborough's Oldsmobile in a qualifying race.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)