Bobby Allison is one of the...
Bobby Allison is one of the true ambassadors to racing.
Allison&8217s Miller Buick...
Allison&8217s Miller Buick makes a run.
Allison straps in at a race...
Allison straps in at a race in Dover in 1983.
Bobby Allison, 61, host of Scrapbook this month, has experienced the extremes in racing and life. He scored 84 NASCAR Winston Cup victories, including 3 Daytona 500s and 4 Southern 500s over 27 years, and won the '83 championship. He epitomized a racer's attitude and threw his heart and soul into racing like no other. Allison's near-fatal crash during a race at Pocono in June 1988 was the portent of uncommon tragedy and sorrow. Allison lost both his sons--Davey, an established Winston Cup star, and Clifford, an aspiring driver--in accidents within less than a year. Allison retains ties to racing as part-owner of ALLCAR Motorsports--which fields a Busch Grand National team--and is in demand for personal appearances. He has logged more than 20,000 hours flying his airplanes. Allison, divorced, resides in Hueytown, Alabama, which he and the once-proud Alabama gang of drivers put on the racing map.
I’ve regained most of my memory, wiped out by head injuries in the crash, but what surely would be my fondest memory in racing remains a blank. That is winning the 1988 Daytona 500 at age 50 and my son, Davey, the best young driver in the sport at the time, finishing Second. I also won a qualifying race and the 300-mile Busch Grand National race. I recall nothing about any of the races, except a tiny piece about being in Victory Lane after the 300 on Saturday. In fact, all I remember about SpeedWeek that year was winning the fishing contest on Wednesday and attending a party at a seafood restaurant. Sometimes I get annoyed, and sometimes sad, because I don’t have that highlight of my career to treasure.
My first superspeedway victory--a 500-miler at Rockingham in October 1967--stands out. I was working on my new Chevelle racer in my two-stall backyard garage in Hueytown, and the phone rang. A voice said I was going to get a call in two minutes and that the answer would be yes. I recognized the voice of Ralph Moody, former driver and cofounder of Holman and Moody Co. (Ford’s racing outlet) and he had a reputation as a prankster. I was puzzled as to why he was aggravating me.
The phone rang again. It was Fred Lorenzen, a star Ford driver who had retired earlier that year. In an effort to end the season-long Richard Petty-Chrysler domination, Lorenzen said Ford had placed him in charge of a car for the Rockingham race, and would I drive it? Well, I already had the answer: yes. I wasn't acquainted with Lorenzen, but I was impressed with his meticulous preparation of the Fairlane and his strategy.
We could have sat on the pole, but we were going to qualify with no inner liners in our tires, a trick of the time that added speed--and somebody ratted to NASCAR. We had to mount inner-lined tires and qualified Third. We got ready to race, and Lorenzen said to listen carefully to him, that I had to take care of my car, because abused cars would not withstand the beating of 500 miles on the 1-mile track. He says our code word was think. When he put think on the pit board (we had no radios), it meant I had to back off and save the car. An arrow meant go.
We wanted to lead a lap early to show NASCAR we could, without any tricks. There were three cautions in the first 9 laps of the 492-lapper, but I led the 10th. On the 11th, think was on the board. Much later, I was running second to Cale Yarborough--driving the Wood Brothers Ford--and losing ground. Lorenzen put up the arrow, then Yarborough's engine blew. Think returned to the board.
At 450 laps, I began to smell and see grease on the floorboard, but the car was unaffected and we made the distance, finishing a lap ahead of David Pearson. As I pulled into Victory Lane, the rear quarter of the transmission and the driveshaft fell out. Lorenzen was jubilant. Petty had made a shambles of the circuit that year with an incredible 27 wins. Lorenzen, whose car number was 28, didn't want Petty to match that number in victories. Not incidentally, Petty was eliminated in a pit-road crash.
There wasn’t much job security or gratitude in those days. In the next race after Rockingham, I drove Lorenzen’s Ford in a 250-miler at Asheville-Weaverville (North Carolina) Speedway and beat Petty, even though he bumped me sideways twice late in the race, making up laps. I hit him in the rear twice, though not deliberately. The next weekend, I beat him again in a 267-miler at Macon, Georgia. And two weeks later, he beat me in a 100-miler at Montgomery, Alabama, which counted toward the season. After three straight victories and a second, John Holman, Moody’s partner in Holman and Moody, fired me. Through Moody, I was told that I wasn’t driving the #28 anymore, and they got me a ride in owner Bondy Long’s Ford. Long didn’t want to run the full schedule and I did, so I left Ford.
I bounced around four years after that, driving for owners Bill Ellis and Mario Rossi and my operation. I was really struggling in 1971, when Moody called again and offered me a Ford. I drove the car 19 times and won nine. I also won both of the races I entered in my own car. And Holman fired me again. Mystified, I went to Holman and asked what I had done to him to get fired twice. He said I was a friend of Ralph Moody, he hated Moody, and he was the majority stockholder. That was the end of the conversation.
"Oh, Mr. Allison..."
My son, Davey, played by the rules and was focused. He could be innocent of wrongdoing and still get a whipping. But Clifford could be guilty, talk himself out of a whipping and into a raise in allowance. I was sitting in my shop office one day in Hueytown when I heard the engine in an old Dodge I had revving. Then it died. I looked out the window and saw that the Dodge had hit a tree. I ran out there as Clifford, who was 15, was climbing out of the car. I asked what he was doing in the car and reminded him that he was supposed to be in the shop working. "Aw, Dad, I was just having fun," he said. I returned to my office, and five minutes later I heard the Dodge engine revving, then stop abruptly. I looked just in time to see the car rolling down the hill and flip once to upright. Clifford crawled out of that thing with a big grin on his face. Then not one, but three girls--neighborhood friends--crawled out with grins on their faces. "Oh, Mr. Allison, Clifford said it would be fun to turn over, and it was," said one of the girls. That floored me to the extent that I didn’t have the heart to take any punitive action. (Clifford died in the crash of his race car at Michigan Speedway in 1992).
Davey almost missed his first victory. To backtrack, fresh out of high school, he had gotten a race car from his Uncle Donnie and driven his first race, at Birmingham. He spun out twice and got spun out once, but he finished in the top 10 and got his career started.
Davey did a lot of patching and extensive body repairs on the car. A few weeks later, just hours before a race, the car, in primer, was sitting in our driveway. Davey explained that his car wasn't painted, looked terrible, and he wasn't going to the race. I impressed upon him that all cars look good in Victory Lane and to get to the track. He won the feature and agreed that the car did indeed look real good.
Red Farmer, whose racing career has spanned six decades, was to receive the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Governor of Alabama Award in April. He was to be the first race car driver and first Alabaman to receive the award for significant contributions to racing. This honor reminds me of how much Davey loved Red, who worked for me early on and later for Davey. When Davey was 5, he wanted to name his dog Old Red Farmer. I wouldn’t allow him to do that, but as I look back, a 5-year-old wanting to name his dog after his hero was a great compliment. Perhaps it was fitting that Red was with Davey almost until the end. (Davey was killed and Farmer injured in the July crash of Davey’s helicopter at Talladega Superspeedway.)
Irrepressible Neil Bonnett
My special friend, Neil Bonnett, was an incredible man and a talented race driver with a wonderful personality. In 1977, I was struggling to get my Winston Cup act together. One night I was working alone on my AMC Matador when Neil, a youngster, came in. He said he was a pretty good mechanic and asked if he could help me. Normally I would have said no, but I desperately needed help getting an engine ready. We worked about all night, then Neil went home, took a shower, and went to his job as a pipe fitter. That went on for more than a week. One night, an engine fell on Neil when the stand tipped over. I knew his leg was broken--or much worse. But he wouldn’t let me call an ambulance and said he was all right.
Later, I asked Neil what I could do to show my appreciation for his help. He said he didn't want any money, but he'd like to drive one of my cars sometime. I asked if the next night would be too soon. I was committed to two racetracks on the same night, so I told Neil he could take my car to Maryville, Tennessee. I felt I could talk Don Naman, the promoter, into letting Neil sub for me.
Naman said no, I couldn't do that to him...what was the guy's name? I told Naman I was in trouble and that if Neil didn't do well, he wouldn't owe me any expense money. I raced in Virginia and called Maryville that night to see how Neil did. I hardly got my name out of my mouth before Naman exclaimed, "You gotta send him back next week!" I asked what happened, "what went wrong?" "Nothing," he said. He won the race and captivated the fans. He assured me I'd get the expense money. (Naman is now executive director of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega.) Neil probably drove 90 races for me in 18 months and won 60 features. His death (February 11, 1994 in a crash in practice for the Daytona 500) is another sad chapter in my life.
Coping With Tragedy
People ask me how I have coped with so much tragedy and sorrow. I don’t know exactly how. Friends have helped. My dad always told me to do the best I could with what I had every day, and I’ve hung onto that. I was killed in the wreck in 1988--I just didn’t die. It took more than four years to recover and I’m still not 100 percent. I knew Clifford was dead when I looked into his wrecked car that awful day at Michigan, but I hoped against hope until a doctor confirmed it. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, and I wanted to do something, but I couldn’t. I hurt so bad that it was merciful that I hadn’t fully recovered mentally from my accident. I was just numb.
Davey crashed about 1 p.m. on a Monday and lived several hours. At 7 a.m. on Tuesday, his heart was given to a boy in desperate need. So he lives not only in spirit, but also in heart.
His death hurt just as much as Clifford's, but not as long. I don't know if living through Clifford's deal toughened me, numbed me, or what. I've done enough wrong that I feel like I deserve everything that's happened. But I don't think God works that way. I've had lots of good times along with the bad. I know people who have had bad times who never got to know good ones.