When Bobby Allison won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on the Fourth of July, he got out of his Buick, smiled at the cameras and declared, "I love apple pie, Chevrolet, Ronald Reagan and Bear Bryant." It wasn't a political message but an expression of Allison's faith and optimism.
Try this for faith and optimism: Allison is 44. He has been a race driver for 28 years, 17 in the NASCAR Grand National ranks. He's one of the four greatest stock car drivers of all time. The other three—Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough—have won the Grand National championship, the Winston Cup for the most points earned during a racing season, seven, three and three times, respectively. Allison has finished second four times, including last year when he was in contention into the final race before losing to Darrell Waltrip. Allison's car was often the fastest on the track, and he won a career-high $644,311 for his team in '81. But his racing philosophy didn't mesh with that of the team's owner or the crew chief. So he quit and signed last December with a new team, DiGard/Gatorade, which had a 10-year history of turmoil without a single championship to show for it. DiGard is the 22nd different team Allison has driven for during his career; this difficulty in finding a comfortable niche, he acknowledges, is one of the reasons he hasn't won the Winston Cup.
But Allison and DiGard have been good for each other. The collaboration has brought Allison six wins and 3,142 points so far this year, for a slim lead over Terry Labonte (3,077) before the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day. And Allison has brought stability to DiGard, not to mention the Big Banana—the Daytona 500, which Allison won in his first race for the team. Says crew chief Gary Nelson, 29, "We're at peace. We haven't had a cross word all year. That's what I've always strived for, to be on a team like that. DiGard is finally enjoying the potential we've always had." Nelson was sweeping the garage floor in 1977; he is DiGard's crew chief now largely as a result of a process of elimination—team owner Bill Gardner fires crew chiefs the way George Steinbrenner fires managers. Nelson could go on and on about Allison's pluses. Bobby is firm but patient with mechanics. He's the best in the business at setting up a chassis. Because Allison has run his own team so many times, he understands a crew chiefs problems. Because he has so many racing miles behind him—perhaps more than any driver ever—he has seen every on-track pitfall there is and knows how to avoid them; his instinct for dodging pileups is unmatched. He has incredible stamina. And, most important to a crew chief, he never gives an inch on the track.
Here is where we have the Bobby Allison paradox. Off the track he's as warm, generous, patient and true-blue as race drivers come. But on the track he has a ruthless streak as wide as the racing groove. His racing mottos are "Whatever it takes" and "Don't give any, don't ask for any."
September 12, 1982
Fender rubbing is part of the stock car racing game, and every driver has had his share of incidents. Allison has had more than his share. In one race alone this year, he was involved in three separate incidents with two other drivers. Said Morgan Shepherd, a Grand National sophomore who smacked him twice, "Allison drove like an idiot." Said Labonte, who collided with Allison trying to lap him three laps from the finish, "Who does Allison think he is, God?"
Allison contends he has never been at fault. He concedes he has crowded other drivers unintentionally, or slid into them when he might have been trying too hard, but he pleads innocent to anything else. "I can't readily think of a situation where I was to blame for bumping," he says. "I always felt like I was right, like the other people didn't understand the situation, the whole picture, and consequently they reacted on less than 100 percent knowledge. Then I was put in a position of retaliating or defending myself or whatever." Another Allison motto might be "Don't initiate, retaliate."
Though it wouldn't be at all hard to find a few dozen drivers who would fall down laughing at Allison's claim to 28 years of innocence, his case isn't without merit. First, there is his basic fairness; he does indeed practice a two-edged version of the golden rule. "Don't give any, don't ask for any" might be one interpretation. Second, no one can survive 28 years in oval racing if he's seriously looking for trouble.
Allison was one of the protagonists in the most famous feud in stock car racing. It's over now, but for years, in the late '60s and early '70s, he and Richard Petty went after each other on the track like pit bulls. Allison had been king of the modified division but in 1967 was a new boy on the Grand National circuit, which Petty was dominating that year. It started with a fender bashing in the next-to-last race of the year at North Wilkesboro, N.C. and simmered until the summer of 1968, when, after they had whapped each other at a race at Islip, N.Y., Petty's crew, led by his brother, Maurice, and cousin, Dale Inman, went after Allison and his crew, led by Allison's brother Eddie. A mass scuffle ensued.
Petty's and Allison's explanations for the feud are identical: He started it; all I did was retaliate. "And you know," says Allison, "when a person retaliates, you don't really get even, you get up a little. And so if he rubbed me a little, I rubbed him a little harder. Well, then he didn't remember that he just rubbed me, so he rubbed me a little harder than I just rubbed him. And then I rubbed him a little harder again, and the next thing you know we're knocking each other's fenders off."
For five years it went on like that, on superspeedways as well as short tracks; at times their "rubbing" was downright dangerous, and they both knew it.
Eventually, according to one version, the two crews met in a restaurant in Riverside, Calif., and Petty had the common sense to announce an official end to it all. He edged Allison for the championship that year, though Allison won more races and was named Driver of the Year. Even today, Allison believes the two of them can't be friends until they've both retired from racing. He says he admires Petty as much as anyone he knows: "Richard treats people right whether they're rich, poor, famous, unknown, young, old or whatever. And he drives the wheels off a race car."
Off the track, Allison plays by apple pie rules. He's devoutly religious—a lifelong Catholic—and a faithful family man. He rarely denies requests for appearances for special causes, often quietly volunteering, turning up at schools for handicapped children and Boy Scout meetings. "All those favors get returned," he says simply.
He's unfailingly obliging to his fans and after a race will listen attentively to them, though they rarely say anything he hasn't heard thousands of times before. Last year, for the fourth time in his career, he was voted the most popular Grand National driver in a NASCAR poll among members. "Not fans, friends," he often says of his people.
As the fourth-oldest and most successful of 13 brothers and sisters, Allison has inherited the role of family leader and the responsibilities it entails. His siblings can turn to him if they're broke or hurting. His parents, in the 55th year of their marriage, live across the street from him in Hueytown, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, in a double-wide mobile home he provided for them. His father, E.J., is known as Pop around the NASCAR garages. Bobby is, of course, the provider for his own family: Judy, his wife of 22 years; Carrie, 15; Clifford, 17; Bonnie, 19; and Davey, 21, who drives the local short tracks and prepares his car—one of Bobby's old ones—in the shop near the house.
Bobby says grace before meals in restaurants. His idea of a high time is taking the family to an amusement park and maybe a G-rated movie afterward. His race day routine includes Mass in the morning, and he sometimes brings a priest to the races, among them Father Dale Grubba, a friend and fan who moonlights from his parish work in Waterloo, Wis. to write for Stock Car Racing Magazine. About the only uncomplimentary thing that can be pinned on Allison off the track is that he sometimes yells at his wife and kids.
It does make one wonder: Could this be the same man who would push a competitor up against a wall, and maybe into it, at 190 mph? Well, Allison would say he never initiates, he only retaliates.
Allison's values present him with a moral dilemma in the NASCAR garages. NASCAR has this philosophy about rules enforcement: The more vague and arbitrary you are, the more power you have. NASCAR has an attitude toward cheating that not only tacitly encourages it but makes a game of it. And if you're a driver and your motto is "Whatever it takes," and a competitor has 50 more horsepower than you, and it's illegal horsepower and everybody knows it, then, says Allison, "you have to consider it." After all, you didn't initiate it.
"When I went to my first Grand National race, my car was dead legal and I noticed right away it looked different from the others," he says. "It was so high a tall dog could have run under it without even settin' his ears back. When I looked over and saw the next guy's car nearly dragging on the ground, I knew there was a big gray area as far as interpretation of the rules went." Like virtually all the top drivers, he has been caught and penalized for cheating. He maintains a sense of humor about it. Once, after arriving late for a Sunday morning drivers' meeting, he explained, "I was in church—praying nobody would find out what we've been doing to our car."
Allison was born and raised in Miami and in 1959 went to Alabama with his brother Donnie, a noted race driver in his own right, in a pickup truck, solely because the opportunity to race was greater there. He was 21 and Donnie 19, and they had no specific destination in Alabama in mind. They stopped for gas and asked where the nearest short track was and were pointed 100 miles north to Montgomery. For months they lived in their truck and $1.50-per-night boardinghouses while they raced. "It was the best thing I've ever done for my career," Allison says. "We could run Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday afternoon, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon." In 1962 he won the NASCAR modified-special championship and did it again in 1963. In '64 and '65 he won the NASCAR modified championship, running as many as 100 races a year on tracks all over the country.
It's a pace he has largely maintained to this day; he still runs short tracks on week-nights between Grand National races, only now he flies to tracks in his Piper Aerostar, which he has converted into a Superstar with a kit that improves the aerodynamics and gives the two turbo-charged engines more horsepower. He loves flying and tinkering with the plane. "It's my one vice, my one special thing of my own," he says. He might hit 10 towns a week, crisscrossing the country for appointments: p.r. or testing or short-track races or personal appearances for worthy causes. Says his shop manager, Donnie Johnson, "Let me tell you something: If you want to keep up with Bobby, you best take you a big long nap first, because you're in for a busy time."
Allison hasn't counted the number of races he's run or the racing miles he's driven (as for wins, he thinks "about 520"), but NASCAR tallies the Grand National miles, and he has logged more than 156,000. He just can't get enough of racing cars around in circles, and that, far more than anything else, is what makes Bobby run.
In 1976 and 1977 Allison survived a terrible slump. It started with two serious crashes in '76, a little more than four months apart. The first, in the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, N.C. in February, put him in the hospital for four days with a broken sternum, broken ribs and internal bruises after he barrel-rolled his Mercury. The second, at a short track in Elko, Minn. on a Saturday night in July, nearly did him in. He slid in some oil and hit a concrete abutment. Says Neil Bonnett, now a Grand National circuit driver but then racing on short tracks under Allison's tutelage, "I came into his shop the next Monday and there was the car with the front all pushed in, the motor pushed back into the firewall, the steering wheel jammed back against the roll bars, blood all over the inside. I thought he must have been dead."
Allison had 11 broken bones, including four ribs and two facial bones, plus smashed bones in both feet, a total of 40 stitches near his right eye and in his right cheek and upper lip, a "blowout fracture" of the bone below the right eye and "various other sundry ailments." He was in intensive care in a hospital in Minneapolis, 26 miles away, until Thursday, when a friend came and flew him back home. But he was in another battle for the Winston Cup, and because full points for a given car's performance are earned by the driver who starts a race—even if he is relieved by another driver—Allison felt he had to start that Friday night in Nashville. On Thursday, Bonnett swiped him off his back porch.
"We just picked him up, cut a big cast off his foot and put him in the motor home and headed for Nashville," says Bonnett. "Bobby managed to qualify and run one lap and get his points, and he pulled in and I took over and drove the race. But he was beat up so bad he couldn't hardly move. We had to sew some big handles on the shoulders of his uniform to pull him out of the car, and I know we about killed him when we did."
Allison raced the next week in a 500-miler and finished the 1976 season in fourth place, and in great pain. He didn't win again until February 1978, enduring a dry spell of 67 races. The injuries from the crashes had weakened him more than he knew, and new, unrelated ailments began to eat at him. He found he had no energy, and his stomach gave him such agony he thought he had an ulcer. A doctor told him he didn't, that he had just worn himself down.
There were no decent offers for 1977, so Allison ran as an independent, and it was a wretched year. He was losing weight—eventually he dropped from 195 pounds to 145—and was "just hanging on for dear life. But even when I was sick real bad I could muster up my competitiveness. The one thing I could still do was get in that race car and drive."
That winter he was hired by car owner Bud Moore, who knew Allison was ailing but had faith in him. The union with Moore ended the slump, and the race that broke it, the 1978 Daytona 500, epitomizes Allison's career. It was a victory for persistence and survival.
Driving a Thunderbird he had dubbed the "Luxury Liner," Allison was leading a 125-mile qualifying race on the Thursday before the Sunday of the 500, when Buddy Baker skidded and crashed into him. "It tore that car all to pieces," says Allison. "I came back down to the garage area, my old stomach was a mess over it, and Bud said, 'Don't worry about it, we'll have that car fixed. These guys loved it when you were leading.' And I thought to myself, 'Yeah, and Santa Claus will come in here on his sleigh with his reindeer, too.'
"I went down to a friend's camper and said, 'I gotta lay down.' I thought, 'Lord, if I could just go to sleep and erase this whole deal.' Right then I felt like I didn't have the strength to lift up a pair of high-top shoes. I laid down there for a couple hours, and late in the afternoon I gathered myself up and went back to the garage, and those guys had straightened the sheet metal out, changed the engine, changed the spindles, had the rear end apart and inspected it, even touched up the paint! I looked at that car and my mouth fell open. I said to myself, 'If these guys can do that for me, by God I'm going to drive that car the best I can.' "
In the end he had to start the Luxury Liner in 33rd position because he hadn't finished the qualifying race. In the ensuing 500 miles he survived two more crashes, the second of which squeezed the T-bird between another car and the wall at 185 mph. The Luxury Liner was battered when it crossed the finish line, but it was 33.2 seconds ahead of Cale Yarborough's second-place car. It was Allison's first Daytona 500 victory after 18 years of trying.
A month later he won the Atlanta 500—but afterward was so weak he couldn't get out of the car. By then he was so skinny that "if I smiled, my pants would fall down. I went on a program then of what I call 'strength conservation.' I ate really picky—only the red meat. And then I did nothing until it was time to get in the car. Saved every bit of strength I had to drive. I stopped working in the garage all night. I just said, 'If it ain't done by evening, it ain't gettin' done.' "
Allison won five races that year—finishing second in the Winston Cup standings once again, this time to Yarborough. But he was speeding back toward full strength. Which is where he is now, and proving it. His most satisfying race this year was one he didn't win. It was the World 600 at Charlotte in May, the longest and often the most grueling race on the circuit. It was 92° that day, and the exhaust pipes on his Buick broke about halfway into the race.
"I had some doubts about his endurance before then, but not after that race," says crew chief Nelson. "When those pipes broke, the floorboard of the car got red-hot—at least 1,000 degrees. Exhaust fumes blew right in the car, which is nothing to laugh at, and he sat in that car for over 300 miles like that. He finished third. A lot of guys in cars that were running perfect had to have relief drivers."
"I am the toughest," says Allison matter-of-factly. "I am."
He's also the racingest driver out there. In the week between the Budweiser 400 at Riverside and the Gabriel 400 at Brooklyn, Mich. in June, he hopped around the country racing short tracks. One of them, on a Tuesday night in Slinger, Wis., showed what Allison is all about.
He hadn't seen Slinger Speedway since he was 17, when he spent the summer of 1955 living at Slinger with an aunt and uncle and watched the races from a hillside. What had once been a tiny dirt oval with no barriers was now a paved, banked short track—the fastest quarter-mile track in the country—with a solid concrete wall around it.
The June Slinger Nationals consist of two 75-lap races for Late Model Sportsman cars—ominous-looking swoopy beasts, mostly Camaros and Firebirds, with noses like snowplow blades and chopped so low the windshields are mere slits. The exhaust pipes exit through holes in the body just behind the front wheels, black headers that look like cannon barrels. Every time the driver backs off from the throttle, the pipes boom and belch yellow flames that light up the track in the night and cast shadows on the wall. Late Model Sportsman cars are the roots of Grand National cars, and the Slinger Speedways are the marrow of the Darlingtons and Daytonas. No Grand National driver anywhere knows his roots like Allison.
Allison's Camaro arrived late from Mississippi, so he missed practice and had to start the first heat from the 11th and last row. The car misfired for much of the race, because a spark plug wire had come loose, while Allison dodged spin after spin. He was 10th at the end.
In the second heat a chain-reaction crash on the front straight on the 51st lap commenced as Allison was coming off Turn 4, his foot to the floor and heading toward the thick of the trouble. By then the track was obscured in white smoke from locked brakes and sliding cars. Somebody's blue fender flew out of the haze as Allison disappeared into it.
The owner of the Camaro was watching from the start-finish line. "I'll tell ya," he said, "it was the best piece of driving I ever seen, Bobby gettin' through all that without hittin' anyone."
Because the spectators couldn't really see what was going on, they turned toward Turn 1 to see who would come out of it. There, still weaving away from the last spinning car, was Allison's white Camaro. The only thing he had hit was a bumper that had been ripped off a car. It had cut a tire, which he had to stop to change. Allison had been third out of the smoke; the pit stop dropped him to seventh, where he finished.
"Last night was a tough night," he said the next morning as he climbed into his Superstar. "Those were talented drivers, and they were in their environment and I was out of mine. I expose myself to getting dusted off really bad when I run these races. They're always gunning for me because I won the Daytona 500.
"I got 10th and seventh. But I got no complaints. I really enjoyed last night. I'll tell you something. A lot of people might not believe this, but if I had to retire without ever winning the NASCAR championship, I think I could put up with that without much problem at all. Really, I've thought about it. I don't think anybody else in the Grand National bracket enjoys racing so much that they could say that."
Allison closed the door of his airplane and fired up the engines. There was a short-track race in Hagerstown, Md. that night, and they were expecting him.