In last year's Daytona 500, Bobby Allison watched a commanding lead go up in the fumes of his empty gas tank. But he had survived 21 years of racing stock cars, and he isn't the kind to give up. On Sunday he came back to Daytona and won. And judging from the way he did it, he should make survivor his middle name. After just 10 of the 500 miles, the rear bumper of his Buick and the front bumper of Cale Yarborough's Buick hooked—a "real hard hit," said Allison—and Bobby's bumper went flying back into the field behind them. It took five cars out of contention. Then, just past the halfway point, shrapnel from the blown engine of a car creeping into Turn One bombarded Allison. He drove into the cloud of white smoke trailing the car, wondering what was in there. It might just as well have been the checkered flag, because most of his hottest competition followed him into the smoke—and came a cropper on the debris.
Finally shades of last year with a mere half mile to go, Allison's engine fluttered in warning that he was out of fuel. But by then he could have coasted home—which he did—into the arms of his cheering crew in pit lane. There the engine died, bone dry. They pushed the car into Victory Circle.
It was a well-deserved win that was testimony to hard work as well as endurance. In 1981 Allison had narrowly lost the NASCAR championship to Darrell Waltrip, so Bobby changed teams this winter—joining the DiGard team Waltrip had quit in disgust a year earlier. Three weeks before the 500, Allison spent four days testing at Daytona, running nearly 900 miles to sort out the car. It paid off to the tune of some $370,000, his take last week counting bonuses for which the victory qualified him.
Those tests were crucial, because they taught Allison something vital about the 1982 cars. Drafting close behind the car ahead and then slingshotting past it had been a tried-and-true strategy at Daytona. But some drivers were saying slingshotting had been made obsolete by the new short-wheelbase racers. "There's something about them," said Allison. "They just get all held back when they're out in the wind by themselves. Last year we didn't notice it because we were so screwed up just trying to keep them from sailing away. But now, if you pull out of your spot to pass and get up alongside someone, man, you just don't go nowhere. And won't nobody let you back in, no hole to go into. It messes you up."
Thus the drivers had to change tactics, and those clichés describing a line of drafting cars—"express train," "steel ribbon," "rolling thunder"—became more descriptive than ever. For most of the 500 the racers lined up single file, including Allison, who led 147 of the 200 laps, and went round and round and round, the car at the end of the file like the tail of a whip at a roller dome, sucked along by the other cars, kept alive by the draft, its driver afraid to let go because he knew that if he did he would never catch up again.
This made the racing more suspenseful, if not more action-packed. And the paradox was that because each pass meant more, the lack of passing was also more meaningful than the rampant dicing of the past. Before, they were playing. This year, they were waiting.
That the new cars weren't as stable as the older, heavier ones compounded the drivers' difficulties. A stock car handles one way when it's alone on the track, another when it's drafting, another when it's being drafted. The drivers had to fight against spinning out of the line as well as being nudged out.
Intelligence was more important than ever, with the rewards going to the men who knew best how to play the draft. They would take no long-shot gambles, make no wasteful moves. They would be conservatively opportunistic. Survival was the watchword. Given that uncertain handling and those express trains of drafting cars, there was always the possibility of a huge chain-reaction, foggy-freeway type of crash at nearly 200 mph.
Before Sunday there had been a slow several days of racing, as Daytona Speed Weeks go. Benny Parsons won the 500 pole in a slope-nosed Pontiac LeMans, like the one Allison had put on the pole a year ago. Parsons qualified for the top spot with a record average speed of 196.317 mph. Allison won the Busch Clash, a 50-mile sprint worth $50,000 to him. Yarborough and Buddy Baker won Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races, Yarborough by employing the "obsolete" slingshot to zip past Allison on the last lap, Baker by staying ahead of what might be called the Waltrip-Dale Earnhardt-Neil Bonnett-Ron Bouchard Bounce. Waltrip had strayed out of the steel ribbon in Turn Three to pass Earnhardt, found he couldn't pull it off and tried to squeeze back into a hole that didn't exist. His right rear tapped Earnhardt's left front, causing Earnhardt to back off, which caused Bonnett, hard on Earnhardt's tail, to hit the brakes. That made him skid down off the banking into innocent bydriver Bouchard, causing him to slide sideways through Turn Four. Bonnett was furious at Waltrip afterward, but Darrell merely shrugged and said, "Them cats forget about all the times when you let them in." Waltrip rarely concedes the last word. He is a contentious man who has earned the nickname Jaws around the circuit.
On the eve of the 500 there appeared to be every possibility of a great race, because the leading cars were so closely matched. When the sun rose over Turn Three, it was actually visible—haze had obscured it all week—although it was cloudy pink because of the smoke from fires set by infield campers.
By race time at midday the sky was clear and the temperature a crisp 60°. And it was a great race. At the start, all that steel-ribbon talk appeared to be so much premature silliness. They went for the lead as if the 500 were a sprint. First Yarborough, then Harry Gant (in a Buick owned by Burt Reynolds and movie director Hal Needham and called The Bandit), and then Earnhardt pulled ahead. Allison made his move on the fourth lap, and then came the incident of the flying bumper. The caution light stayed on until Lap 14, and now the express train was highballing.
Earnhardt was the first of the front-runners to go, on Lap 45. He had run out of gas—but had made it in for refueling—six laps earlier, which caused the engine to run lean and eventually resulted in a burned piston. In the role of "locomotive," Allison was finding the going a little squirrelly because of his missing bumper; its absence had changed the car's handling. But he was cutting laps at 194 mph.
In the next 100 miles he gave up the lead only briefly, chased most closely by Bonnett, Baker, Yarborough, Terry LaBonte and Joe Ruttman, the last doing extremely well in his first 500. All were driving Buicks save Bonnett, who had a Thunderbird. On Lap 105, Bobby Wawak, who had been in and out of the pits trying to get his balky engine to run right, lost it completely. Its innards blasted out the exhaust pipes and all over the track amid blinding smoke. He chugged into Turn One about 90 mph slower than the train bearing down on him.
"I couldn't see nothing but smoke," said Allison. "I mean nothing. I couldn't see the racetrack, the other cars, the wall, nothing. I knew I was going to have to go in there blind. So I just backed off and squeezed up against the wall and held my breath."
Bonnett, Allison's protégé and fellow Alabamian, was on Bobby's bumper at the time, and he did what Allison did. Allison had a pro behind him. Bonnett wasn't so lucky. Said Bonnett: "Bobby and I both lifted and threw up our right hands, signaling to the car behind that we were slowing down, and next thing I knew someone hit me from the rear and knocked me into the wall." He stayed pasted to the wall around Turn One, his race over.
The wreckage accumulated; cars were spinning and hitting the wall all over the place. Richard Petty went down exactly as Bonnett had, clipped and bumped into the wall. Parsons and Baker also got caught in the confusion. Bonnett and Petty were taken to the infield clinic for observation, Bonnett on a stretcher, Petty limping. They told each other the same sad story inside and came out grumbling but relatively undamaged. Petty's right foot had been badly sprained by being banged against the brake pedal during the accident.
When the green light came on again on Lap 115, Waltrip came into the picture for the first time. His car had been "loose"—sliding at the rear—for the first half of the race, but Junior Johnson had made adjustments at each pit stop, and Waltrip was snaking up through the accident-shortened train. By Lap 138, Waltrip was on Allison's tail, making moves at him—feints, actually—to let Bobby know he had arrived.
The stage was being set for a standard barnburner of a Daytona finish, and there could be no more competitive duelers than the two who had raced right down to the final event of the '81 season for the championship.
On Lap 145, Allison took the low groove, hanging out there alone, and Waltrip went by, dragging Ruttman, LaBonte and Jim Sauter with him. Allison was in fifth place that quick, but within a few seconds he was back in second. Six laps later Waltrip's engine quit; Daytona had denied him for the ninth time. The fans might have been disappointed at losing the prospect of a furious finishing fight between Waltrip and Allison, but they cheered Jaws' misfortune anyway.
"My hat's off to Bobby today," said Waltrip back in the garage. "He's taking it home. If he doesn't have any trouble, he's home free."
Allison was able to utilize the cloud of smoke from Waltrip's blown engine to lose Ruttman and LaBonte for an instant, enough to break the draft they had been living on for the first time all day. And when Allison got off by himself, he was able to increase his lead by half a second a lap, still turning laps at better than 192 mph and denying all attempts to put a new draft on him. Allison's low line in the turns was evidence of the now superior handling of his car—and his superior skill in setting up a chassis. Around the pits, they figure there's none better at it.
Yarborough, after his last stop for fuel, passed Ruttman and then LaBonte and was lurking a mile behind Allison, hoping that Bobby would either have to pit for more gas or run out of it. He waited in vain, and—even while sputtering—Allison won by 22.87 seconds.
Yarborough had not only gotten past Allison's flying bumper safely but also past another car that had spun right in his face. Yarborough spun his own car, gracefully, in self defense, and still was able to regain the lost ground. And beyond that he had started the 500 with an untested engine, having blown his best one in the final practice on Saturday. Yarborough plainly had been the day's second-best survivor; it was proper that he be the second-best finisher also.