2011 Hall of Fame Class: Bobby Allison
May 13, 2011 | 11:31 A.M. EST
Bobby Allison's NASCAR Cup Series career spanned nearly three decades beginning in 1961. (Photo: ISC Archives)
If Webster’s dictionary had illustrations, Bobby Allison’s picture would accompany the entry "hard-core racer."
Allison, whose NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career spanned nearly three decades beginning in 1961, could hold his own with any of his peers – a stellar group that included NASCAR Hall of Fame member Richard Petty and fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee David Pearson, among others.
But Allison, born Dec. 3, 1937 in Hialeah, Fla., didn’t just superbly turn a steering wheel.
He built race cars equally as well as he drove them. And he did just that during much of his competitive career. Allison could, most say, turn parts he found in wrecking yards into the equal of those specially machined in Detroit – and the competitiveness of his equipment reflected just that.
Allison, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, raced his own cars for several reasons, foremost because in those days it was the only sure path to NASCAR’s premier division. And later, it became a means of pursuing championships in an era of 50-60 race seasons in which few of the factory-backed owners ran full schedules.
"He was, at that time to me, what a real racer was," said NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and FOX television analyst Darrell Waltrip. "This was a guy who did it all. He was an underdog and he viewed himself that way."
Allison left South Florida and high school early because there weren’t enough races on which to build a career. He and his younger brother Donnie landed in Hueytown, Ala., outside Birmingham. They, along with Red Farmer and later Neil Bonnett and Allison’s son Davey, became the "Alabama Gang," a formidable collection of take-no-prisoners competitors.
He won NASCAR Modified Division championships in 1964-65 after winning 1962-63 titles in NASCAR’s Special Modified Division.
Allison won 84 NASCAR premier series races, tied for third-most on the all-time list, with Waltrip. His first victory came in 1966 at Oxford, Maine driving a self-built Chevrolet under ownership of J.D. "Woody" Bracken, one of 13 different owners for which Allison won.
He scored victories in seven different brands of car, including four of the five wins by Roger Penske’s AMC Matador.
Allison was off to the races – literally and figuratively – catching the attention of NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Cotton Owens, Holman-Moody and Mario Rossi. Between 1967 and 1971, Allison won 27 times on virtually all surfaces and configurations including speedways, short tracks and road courses.
In 1972, then-Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Richard Howard hired NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson to prepare and operate an all-star team that included Allison, crew chief Herb Nab and engine builder Robert Yates.
Relations between Johnson and Allison, who brought Coca-Cola sponsorship to Howard’s Chevrolet team, were frequently tense; the Howard-Johnson-Allison pairing lasted just one season. But what a season it was. Allison won 10 races, finished second 12 times and sat on the pole 11 times. About all they didn’t win was the championship. Allison finished second to Petty in a season also remembered for the pair’s epic feud that extended outside the race track, all the way to Petty and Allison partisans in the infields, grandstands and beyond.
In retrospect, Johnson wonders what might have been. "If he’d stayed with me, those would be Bobby Allison’s records, not Richard Petty’s (records)," said Johnson, who went on to win six NASCAR premier series titles with NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.
Allison won the 1978 Daytona 500 for NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Walter "Bud" Moore, a first for both. After finishing second in the standings five times, Allison finally captured the NASCAR premier series championship in 1983 driving for DiGard Racing.
At age 50, Allison became the oldest Daytona 500 winner in 1988 with son Davey finishing in second place – the only time a father and son have finished one-two in the "Great American Race."
Allison’s third Daytona 500 win (he also won in 1982) turned out to be his final trip to Victory Lane. A June accident at Pocono Raceway left Allison with a career-ending head injury. His retirement proved bittersweet. Son Clifford was killed in a NASCAR Nationwide Series accident during practice at Michigan International Speedway in 1992 and son Davey, after winning his own Daytona 500, died following the crash of his helicopter at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993.
"We really had the highs and lows to win the Daytona 500 three times, the last at age 50," said Allison. "To have the heartache and agony, it’s really been a mixed thing. NASCAR has been an important part of our lives and America’s, I think."