For more than 20 years he went fender to fender — and occasionally toe to toe — in racing’s toughest gig: NASCAR. He scored 84 wins, but they came at a heavy personal cost. By Damien Smith
Where do you start with a man like Bobby Allison? So many races, so many wins, cars, teams; the anecdotes, the laughter, the disappointments… the tragedy. A life dedicated to the gladiatorial world of stock car racing has left deep scars that will never heal. But Allison’s odyssey, season after season of relentless motor sport, has given him much to cherish, too.
Bobby and his wife Judy, who has shared every step of his journey, stroll into Goodwood’s Cathedral Paddock. They look a little unsure, out of context in this setting — until they stand by the car Bobby is here to demo, a Miller-backed Buick Regal from his 1983 Winston Cup-winning year. Then a nice moment: Bobby spots an old rival just 20 feet away. “Junior,” he calls in his high Southern tone. The big man with his back turned doesn’t react. “Junior!” repeats Bobby with more force. This time the man does hear, turns and clocks who’s speaking. A ‘Well, whaddya know’ smile spreads across his face. Junior Johnson ambles over and, in the grounds of an elegant English country house, two craggy old NASCAR legends chew the fat. Thank God for the Festival of Speed.
Later that day Bobby sits facing me. Judy, who’s kindly directed her husband towards me, takes a seat to one side. I ask myself again: where do I start? Forty years of motor sport in a half-hour interview? Not likely. But with the broadest of brush strokes, here is an outline of Allison’s career.
The Alabama Gang’ Bobby, — his younger brother Donnie and Red Farmer — won races all over the Southern states in the early 1960s, although the Allisons were actually born and bred in Florida. Stock car racing drew Bobby to Alabama in 1959 and he made his debut in NASCAR’s premier Grand National division two years later, driving a Chevrolet for his brother-in-law Ralph Stark at Daytona.
The young Allison, though, made his living — and name — on the short-track Modifieds circuit, often racing every night Wednesday to Sunday. By 1965 he was ready for another crack at Grand National — he had done just four races first time around — and he took his first win at Oxford Plains Speedway in ’66. But from the start he had to work hand to make progress. He would be credited with 84 Grand National/Winston Cup wins, equal third in the record books with Darrell Waltrip, but guaranteed full-time drives always seemed difficult to hold on to. He was an underdog, and the fans loved him for it.
His relationship with the crack Holman-Moody team is typical of his roller-coaster fortunes. After Cotton Owens had failed to deliver on his promise of a permanent drive for 1967, Allison made a deal with Ralph Moody for the final two races. He won both to seal a factory Ford drive for ’68 and was shifted over to the Holman-Moody-supported Bondy Long operation. But a run of engine failures hurt, especially as he was only paid a cut of the purse, while Ford stopped him from earning money racing Modifieds. He quit and fell back on his trusty self-run Chevelle.
In 1971 Allison had another spell with Holman-Moody. He began the year running his own car, then was called in by Moody when David Pearson quit the team. But antipathy between the co-owners would be Bobby’s downfall. “I won eight out of my 22 races for the team in the ’71 season, then John Holman fired me,” says Allison. “I said to him, john, what am I doing wrong?’ He said, ‘You’re Ralph Moody’s friend and I hate Ralph Moody. I have controlling stock and you’re fired.”
As the years rolled by, Allison raced and won in just about every make of stock car. But he was the perennial bridesmaid, finishing runner-up in the points five times. Victory in the ‘big one’, the Daytona 500, also proved elusive. But after a crippling two-season drought in 1976-77, Allison’s hard slog suddenly paid off. A switch to Bud Moore’s Fords in ’78 reaped immediate glory with victory in the 500. A second win at the race came when he joined DiGard Racing’s Buick team in ’82. Then finally, after almost 20 years of trying, Allison landed the Winston Cup title in ’83. The gaping hole in his CV had been filled.
Bobby’s trio of Daytona 500 wins was completed in a Stavola Brothers Buick in 1988, beating his son Davey to the line in a family 1-2. This, however, would be the final win of his career, a special memory wiped out by a horrendous crash. It was at Pocono on June 19,1988, that Allison’s tale began to spiral. Shortly after the start a puncture sent him into the wall. As he rebounded, Jocko Maggiacomo’s Chevy slammed into the driver’s door of the Buick. Allison suffered multiple breaks, internal injuries and, most seriously, potential brain damage. He flat-lined in surgery, but came back from the brink to make a long, slow recovery: “I have good memories that go quite a way back, but no memory of 1987, nor of ’88, not much of ’89 and only little pieces of ’90.”
Deeper turmoil was to come. In August 1992 his youngest son Clifford was killed in a secondary-division Busch Series practice accident at Michigan. Less than a year later, Davey — by now an established star in the Winston Cup — died in a helicopter crash at Talladega. Then, after losing both of his sons, Allison’s former protégé Neil Bonnett died in a practice crash at Daytona in ’94.
So where to begin? Why not his greatest rivalries? We kick off with the juiciest: Allison vs Yarborough. Bobby gives a little smile; Judy chuckles in the background. “Cale Yarborough,” he begins. “Very intense, very, um… [he pauses for a full 20 seconds] … I wouldn’t say unfriendly, but very much his own deal: ‘Leave me alone and get out of my way.’ He had great success, but we were not friends. We respected each other, but I probably respected him more than he respected me.”
With 83 wins, Yarborough is just one behind Allison in the winners’ list He won three consecutive Winston Cups between 1976 and ’78, and four Daytona 500s. But perhaps his most (in)famous moment was a fist fight with the Allison brothers after the ’79 Daytona 500 that was witnessed live by millions of TV viewers.
Cale was challenging Donnie for the lead in the closing stages when they came up to lap Bobby. Both got past him and, on the last lap, Cale dropped low to make his move. Donnie held his line, Yarborough dropped two wheels on the grass and they both hit the wall.
After the chequered flag, Bobby stopped to offer his brother a lift to the garage area: “Cale started yelling, saying that the crash was my fault. So I think I questioned his ancestry. Cale was always a bully, a tough guy, and of course my brother was very much like that too. They didn’t want any part of each other, so Cale ran over to my car. I still had my seat belts and helmet on, and he lunged and hit me in the face with his helmet. I looked into my lap and saw blood. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to have to address this right now or I’m going to be running from him for the rest of my life.’ So I got out of the car— and that’s when he started beating on my fists with his nose!
“Donnie stepped in and said, ‘I’ve got a helmet too if you want to fight with helmets’, but Donnie never swung at Cale and Cale never swung at Donnie. I felt like it was between him and me because I was considered a wimp by some of those tough guys.
“Anyway, we’re fairly friendly with each other now after all these years, and we’ve had some conversations and laughed about it. But NASCAR didn’t. They fined us $6000 apiece.”
Richard Petty inherited his sixth Daytona 500 that day. His final career statistics would read seven Daytonas, 200 Grand National/Winston Cup victories and seven championships.
“Richard Petty is The King. He won on the little tracks and he won on the big tracks,” Allison says with a hint of resignation. “I admired him and had a lot of respect for him. We raced hard back in those days. Sometimes we both wanted the same piece of track, and once in a while there were a few hard words, but there was never any great damage; just bent fenders.
“Richard had a special way with the fans; I tried to copy it. I would say that between the two of us there was probably a much greater number of fans than for anyone else.” The legend who stands between Petty and Allison in the victory list is David Pearson, a triple champion in the 1960s, who has 105 victories to his name. ‘David was very much a loner,” says Allison. “He raced very well, but would always save his car until the end of the race. We were friendly to each other, but we were not personal friends until our careers were over.”
Petty and Pearson were stars before Allison, but by the late 1970s Bobby was part of the establishment as a new generation burst through, led by Waltrip. He became Allison’s greatest rival in the ’80s, claiming three titles and matching Bobby’s win tally.
In his early days Waltrip drove cars built and prepared by Allison’s own team. “We had a friendship with him and his wife and family,” says Bobby. “But as Darrell got into Cup racing he didn’t want to be friends with me and the other people in my bracket It became a really difficult situation. My memories of the later years with him are pretty negative. We’re at least courteous to each other these days. We can be cordial and friendly, but you can never change the past”
Allison’s career also overlapped with the rise of the only man to rival Richard Petty’s fame in NASCAR: seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, The Intimidator. “A tough competitor — probably a little too quick to bump into somebody,” says Allison. “For some reason he had that special relationship with NASCAR that he could bump into you but you couldn’t bump into him.
“Earnhardt won the fans in a much more commercial way than Richard Petty and myself ever did. He remains high in the fans’ admiration. People still buy Eamhardt hats and T-shirts.”
But when pushed on who was the greatest, Bobby makes no apology for the family connection. “Donnie Allison — he was the toughest of all competitors. But Donnie didn’t go to all the races, he only wanted to go to the major events. I was glad of that because the toughest times were when he showed up. We ran 1-2 four times in our career and in three of those he was one and I was two.”
So where does Bobby find his place in history? The stats are important but, as always, they’re not everything: “I had a great career, I enjoyed racing. I ran the Busch races on Saturdays and the short track races mid-week. My new book is called Bobby Allison: The Racer’s Racer. That [title] tells the story for me. That’s how l would like to be remembered.” With that, patient Judy asks, “Are we done?” In truth, I have some more questions. But she’s right, she knows, I wasn’t sure where to finish either.
No point standing on it if there’s no-one in the stands
Bobby Allison had little interest in trying his hand at other forms of motor sport. Stock cars ruled his world. But thanks to Roger Penske he did make it to the Indy 500 — twice.
Allison caught The Captain’s eye in 1972 when he did some practice laps in a UOP Shadow Can-Am car at Riverside, a road course at which Bobby always excelled. “Roger said, ‘You’ve got to try an Indycar’,” Bobby recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t wanna try an Indycar.’ Indycars had one race a year, the Indy 500, which was incredible, but the rest of the races were poorly attended; I liked the NASCAR deal: racing in front of full grandstands 40 times a year.”
But Penske paid Allison to test at Ontario speedway— “I went way, way faster than I should have” — and convinced Bobby to go for the 1973 500. He hated it.
“I went, and lost a whole month of NASCAR racing. We also lost two friends there, Art Pollard [in qualifying] and Swede Savage [in the race]. And then the car blew up on the pace lap.”
In 1974 Allison joined Penske to drive for his AMC Matador NASCAR team, a move that resulted in four wins but a whole lot of disappointment, too. It also led to a return to Indy in ’75.
“Roger asked me if I would test the Indycar at Michigan. Mike Hiss had lapped at 179mph; I went 192.5mph — so I was back in an Indycar!”
Allison led a lap at Indy before the McLaren’s gearbox forced him out. He was also entered in a handful of other races, and again was left unimpressed by the empty stands. “At Pocono, I led and the engine blew. Then, at Michigan, I got a lap behind on a wrong pitstop call, made it up, took the lead and the engine blew again. That was my last Indycar ride. I was so frustrated with that whole deal.”