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Interview with a Legend: Bobby Allison Looks Back on His Racing Career

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By Ben White

Robert Arthur Allison turned 10 years old on Dec. 3, 1947.

Eleven days later on Dec. 14, gas station owner, stock car driver and business entrepreneur “Big Bill” France gathered 35 men for four days of meetings at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The distinguished group represented the most influential names in the racing industry at the time and included drivers, mechanics, promoters, car owners, journalists, businessmen, and a recording secretary there to document the historic event.

In what has been dubbed “The Smoke-Filled Room” by NASCAR historians, participants scribbled notes on bar napkins and a few legal pads, eventually constructing the informal beginnings of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

France, a towering 6-foot-5, envisioned what the sport would become. He could see into the future with remarkable accuracy and spoke prolifically about where he wanted to take the sport in the decades to come.

“Stock car racing has got distinct possibilities for Sunday shows and we do not know how big it can be if it’s handled properly.” France said. “It can go the same way as big car racing (Indianapolis), I believe stock car racing can become a nationally recognized sport by having a National Point Standing. Stock car racing as we’ve been running it is not, in my opinion, the answer. … We must try to get track owners and promoters interested in building stock car racing up. We are all interested in one thing – that is improving the present conditions. The answer lies in our group right here today to do it.”

Bobby Allison and “Big Bill” France were on a collision course but neither one knew it at the time. Years later, their paths would collide and both would be major players in the story of NASCAR’s 75th anniversary. First, a bit of backstory about Allison’s path toward becoming one of NASCAR’s
greatest legends helps to set the scene.

Allison’s boyhood focus was on playing with cars on the beach a few blocks from his home and helping his father sweep floors at his business, which installed and maintained car lift equipment at service stations.

“My dad, Edmond “Pop” Allison, was a neat guy but he worked all the time,” Bobby Allison recalled. “He had us 10 kids on the go all the time. He didn’t put up with lagging around and doing nothing. There was always something that needed to be done.” At the time France was making plans, Allison also had a unique opportunity that would change his life.

“I’ve been a race fan since I was a kid,” Allison said. “There were race tracks around even before NASCAR came into existence. This was the summer of 1948 and I hadn’t turned 11 yet. The guys would put old cars together and race them, and we lived in Florida and it was hot all the time. There was this track called Opa-lacka Speedway. It was on the old Naval Air supply area. They had all these paved lanes that were parallel, and they made the turns with dirt that they eventually paved.

“My grandfather – my mom’s dad – lived with us and he loved all kinds of sports. One Friday night, he told me he was going to the car races and wanted to know if I wanted to go along. I thought, ‘Sure. That would be great!’ I’m a 10-year-old kid and I’m looking for anything that’s exciting. We get there and I’m thinking this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I bugged anybody that had a car to take me to the race track. Not long after that, I started riding my bicycle to see the races.”

It was no surprise a few years later while in high school that Allison began racing in the amateur division at the newly built Hialeah Speedway in Hialeah, Florida. He had his 1938 Chevy but wasn’t quite old enough to race it. After begging his mother, Kitty, to sign the permission slip, she said for one race and Bobby was thinking for 100 years. He moved up through the ranks and started winning Late Model races, so he began using an alias because the sports page of the newspaper started posting results. When the victory lane photo of Allison didn’t match the license, he borrowed one that read Bob Sunderman. Allison’s dad figured out what was going on.

“My dad told me if I was going to race, I should use my own name and to so it with honor,” Allison said. “Mom wasn’t high on the idea at all. Mom’s sister Patty and her husband Jimmy Halley lived in Wisconsin. Uncle Jimmy was the sales manager for Mercury Outboard Motors. Mom called him and asked him to put me to work there to get me away from racing in Florida.”

Little did she know that every small town in Wisconsin has a race track. Further, Carl Kiekhaefer, the owner of Mercury Marine, was heavily involved in NASCAR, fielding a multi-car operation during the mid-1950s.

Allison ended up heading to Charlotte to work on the cars driven by Buck Baker, Speedy Thompson, Jimmy Thompson, Jack Smith, Herb Thomas, just to name a few, in 1955 and 1956. His mother eventually gave in to his dream of a racing career, ending her hopes that he would attend college to become a doctor or lawyer.

Bobby Allison continued to race around Florida until he, brother Donnie Allison and Red Farmer discovered that there was money to be made racing in Alabama, thus becoming the cornerstones of the famed “Alabama Gang” in 1962.

Bobby Allison was winning everywhere and became a top star in short-track racing, earning back-to-back Modified special titles in 1962-’63, then two consecutive NASCAR National Modified crowns in 1964-’65.

Three years before that first Modified title, Allison started five NASCAR Cup Series races in 1961, driving a Chevrolet owned by brother-in-law Ralph Stark. His best finish was 20th at Daytona in a qualifying event.

Then in 1965, he entered his own Chevelle in Cup Series competition and logged three top-10 finishes. The next year, he won Cup Series races at tracks in Islip, New York, Oxford Plains, Maine, and Beltsville, Maryland. He had finally arrived as a winning driver in NASCAR’s elite series.

It was the beginning of an amazing career, a dream come true that began for a young 10-year boy who simply didn’t sleep at night for weeks after seeing his first race with his grandfather way back in summer of 1948. It was a world of color, fast cars, excitement – even better than the Buck Rogers adventures in space he had read about and the baseball games with hot dogs, sodas and cracks of the bat when they connected for home runs.

Allison had seen his early racing heroes drive, win and then retire, only to become a Cup Series driver, struggle to make a name for himself on short tracks, field his own cars until being discovered, and then win a remarkable 84 Cup Series races while posting 336 top-5 finishes, 446 top-10 results and 59 pole positions. Among those stats, he won the Daytona 500 in 1978, 1982 and 1988, the last one over his son Davey Allison. It’s the only time in NASCAR’s 75-year history that a father and son have battled for a Daytona 500 victory.

One of the most famous ends to the 500 came in 1979 when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed while racing for the win, giving the victory to third-place Richard Petty for his sixth victory in the 500. After stopping to check on his brother, Bobby Allison became entangled in a fight between Yarborough and Donnie Allison. The fight was seen live on CBS by millions of viewers who were snowed in by a storm that
blanketed the East Coast.

Though simply by circumstance, the outcome of the race introduced NASCAR to a sizable new audience.

“The fight after the 1979 Daytona 500 is something I’ve talked about countless times over the past 40 years,” Allison said. “It was one of those things that just happened. I was there to give Donnie a ride back to the garage area and, somehow, I got involved. (Laughter) As I’ve said many times, Cale Yarborough kept running into my fist with his nose.

“As it turned out, it was a negative that turned into a huge positive for NASCAR because so many people that had never seen a NASCAR race were suddenly talking about what an incredible finish it was all across the United States. Plus, they were trapped because of the snow and they saw what NASCAR was all about. As it turned out, it was an incredible step in the right direction, but certainly unintended.”

Allison, a 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, had driven for 13 team owners and finished second in Cup Series points in 1970, ’72, ’78, ’81 and ’82 before winning his lone championship in 1983, while driving for DiGard Racing. The title was a sweet accomplishment that had eluded him for decades.

“The 1983 championship was something I had worked so hard for,” Allison said. “We would run good so many times in so many seasons. Then, we’d have something happen right at the end of the year and we would fall short. I was second in points those five years and they would somehow slip away. Then, it all came together in 1983. Winning it was quite a thrill for me and the highlight of my career for sure.”

Allison was on top of the world in 1988 when everything seemingly came crashing down. During an event at Pocono Raceway, Allison’s No. 12 Buick was struck in the driver’s side door, causing near-fatal injuries that ended his career.

After a lengthy recovery, Allison returned to the sport in 1991 as co-owner of Bobby Allison Motorsports.

He had watched his son, Davey Allison, build his own NASCAR career and win 19 Cup Series races, including the 1992 Daytona 500. Davey Allison lost his life in a helicopter crash in July 1993. Allison’s younger son, Clifford, lost his life during a practice session prior to a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Michigan International Speedway in August 1992.

Still, even though there has been unspeakable personal sadness, there has also been incredible joy from being a part of the sport as a competitor and an ambassador. Allison has always searched for the good times and dwells upon them.

“There have been some extremely good days and some incredibly, unspeakably hard days. But through it all, I wouldn’t take anything for being able to be a part of the sport,” Allison said. “The fan support has been tremendous throughout my career and I’ve always appreciated them so much. When I was racing, I worked hard to sign every autograph of every person in line. That was very important to me, even after winning a 500-mile race.”

Bobby Allison has seen many changes within the sport through the years and he continues to watch the sport evolve.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 75 years,” Allison said. “So much has changed in the sport from the time myself and Donnie (Allison) and Red (Farmer) came into this 60 years ago.

“The cars are different, safety continues to get better and better, the drivers are different, the ways things are done is different, the tracks, the people – it’s all different. It’s all moving forward with the times.

“I enjoyed my time in NASCAR racing against Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Buddy Baker – all the drivers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – the drivers of my era. We had some incredibly intense races and we respected each other every time we were on the track and off of it. I think every era of drivers respected each other because they knew they were racing against the best.”

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