Name: Bobby Allison
Birthdate: Dec. 3, 1937
Hometown: Hueytown, Ala. (Born: Miami, Fla.)
Nextel Cup Debut: 1961 Daytona 500 (Finished 31st)
Top Fives: 336
Top 10s: 446
Championships: 1 (1983)
Career Highlights: Three-time Daytona 500 winner (1978, 1982, 1988); 1983 Winston Cup champion; 84 victories, tying him with Darrell Waltrip for third in all-time wins; 1980 IROC champion. Developed front suspension geometry that is still used as the foundation for Nextel Cup, Busch Grand National, Truck and ARCA racecars. Voted Most Popular Driver six times, and voted one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers.
Bobby Allison started racing around southern Florida while he was in high school, but after one too many accidents, his dad, “Pops” Allison made him quit. Following graduation, Bobby, along with brothers Eddie and Donnie, ventured north in search of more competitive and financially rewarding competition. It didn’t take long; they found their calling in nearby Montgomery, Ala. After getting wind of a race at Montgomery Raceway, Bobby entered his car – and won with ease. He never looked back as Donnie, friend Red Farmer and some other buddies of his decided to set up shop there; soon after, what became known as The Alabama Gang was born.
1961 would be Allison’s first start in the big time, with a modest 31st-place finish in the Daytona 500; his first win would have to wait until 1966, when he drove a car owned by JD “Woody” Bracken to a win from the pole at a third-mile paved bullring in Oxford, Maine.
The victory would soon be the first of many.
Throughout his career, Allison was seemingly the perpetual underdog, determined to overcome the odds. He didn’t always have the car with the most support – be it sponsor or factory – but he usually had something fast. This was mainly because he worked on his own cars, building many of them himself. In 1966, Allison was building cars in a tiny shed behind his house, but he would win three races that year in his Chevelle, and the rest of the racing world began to take notice.
In 1967, he would drive for owners Bud Moore and Cotton Owens; he won one race in a Cotton Owens Dodge and three driving for Woody Bracken. Later that season, however, he would receive a call from Ford factory stalwarts Holman-Moody, and won the last two races of the year. The call was perpetuated by legendary NASCAR owner Ralph Moody, who told Allison regarding his impending ride, “You are going to get a phone call in two minutes, and the answer is going to be yes.”
That jumpstarted Allison’s career; in the early 1970s, he began to rack up wins and establish himself as one of the premier drivers of his generation, one of the legendary names in our sport’s history. 1971 produced 11 wins, including five in a row driving for both Holman-Moody and himself. 1972 saw him winning 10 races and 13 second-place finishes in a 31-race season; he had only four finishes worse than sixth all season long.
It was during this time that Bobby began his own kind of preparation for the grueling 500-mile races run in the summer heat. Long before Ricky Rudd and Mark Martin began throwing around iron, Jamie McMurray took a yoga class or Carl Edwards graced the cover of Men’s Fitness, Allison was in training. He would drive around the streets of Hueytown, Ala. in the middle of the summer with the windows rolled up and the heater on, just to get used to the conditions that he would be competing in.
Allison would go on to drive for his own team throughout a good portion of the early 1970s, landing Coca-Cola as a sponsor at one point and bringing Chevrolet into prominence as a competitive force in NASCAR. As the decade wore on, he would drive Roger Penske’s odd-looking AMC Matadors and Mercurys, as well as his own Matadors with intermittent success.
Things changed dramatically in 1978, however; he would win his first of three Daytona 500s, driving for Bud Moore that season while finishing runner-up in the points standings… the best finish of his career to date. In 1979, Allison would start the year by coming to brother Donnie’s aid, becoming party to the famous turn 3 fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. The fight occurred after their last-lap wreck in the first Daytona 500 aired live flag-to-flag on national television – a race that captured the attention and hearts of many viewers, and will forever be remembered for the snapshots of Bobby attempting to intervene.
After three years of driving for Bud Moore, Allison switched teams. In 1981, he would narrowly miss out on winning the Daytona 500 to Richard Petty while driving for Harry Ranier; at season’s end, he lost the Winston Cup to arch-nemesis Waltrip by a scant 53 points. He would win the Daytona 500 in 1982 for DiGard Racing, but lose out on the championship again to Waltrip by 72 points.
Finally, in 1983, after 23 years of competition, Allison would win the Winston Cup championship at 45 years of age. Fittingly, he held off none other than Waltrip by 47 points. To this day, Allison still harbors a grudge and animosity towards “Jaws,” a driver whose personality proved a direct clash to his own.
As the 1980s wore on, Allison saw continued success with DiGard before going back to running his own operation. In 1988, Allison would take his self-owned car to victory in a third Daytona 500, holding off son Davey Allison in the closing laps. Winning at a race record 50 years old, the father received a Miller High Life shower from son Davey in victory lane, as the first 1-2 finish in Daytona 500 history had been completed.
Unfortunately, that would prove to be the final win of Bobby Allison’s career.
Later that June at Pocono, on the first lap, Bobby was involved in a devastating crash that nearly claimed his life. A tire went down during the pace laps and caused him to spin before he could get to the pits. The car was struck in the driver’s side door by Jocko Maggiacomo, knocking Bobby unconscious and forcing him to be cut out of the car. He spent several weeks in the hospital with a bruised heart and brain damage, and has endured years of rehabilitation; he never stepped foot in a Cup car again.
To this day, he can’t remember his 1988 Daytona 500 win; he is quoted as saying, “That week in 1988 had to be my greatest accomplishment. Maybe someday I’ll remember it.”
His driving days behind him, Allison would go on to become a car owner, fielding semi-successful entries for Hueytown driver Hut Stricklin, as well as Jimmy Spencer. Tragedy would plague the Allison family, however. Bobby’s father Pops passed away in 1992, and shortly thereafter, his son Clifford Allison was killed at Michigan during practice for an ARCA event that summer.
A year later, Bobby’s oldest son Davey was killed in a helicopter accident while attempting to land at Talladega. Finally, in 1994, during practice for the Daytona 125-mile qualifying races, Bobby’s close friend and fellow member of the Alabama Gang Neil Bonnett died after hitting the wall between turns 3 and 4. The excessive trauma of such horrific events was so unfathomable, it even took a toll on Bobby’s marriage; he and wife Judy divorced for a short time, although they have happily remarried since.
Looking back on his Cup career, Bobby is credited with 84 wins in the record books when things were all said and done – however, many point to a race run in 1971 at Bowman Gray Stadium that should bump him up to 85. It was an event that featured Grand National (today’s Nextel Cup) and Grand American Cars – models such as Camaros, Mustangs, Firebirds and AMC Javelins were featured. Allison’s Mustang crossed the finish line first, but since it was not a Grand National car, the win was recorded as a Grand American win – though many still dispute that.
In 1973, Yarborough won the fall Charlotte event, followed by Petty and Allison. Allison contested that Petty’s and Yarborough’s cars had big engines; post-race teardown results were deemed “inconclusive,” and the finishing positions were allowed to stand. Allison threatened to sue NASCAR and quit, prior to a private meeting with NASCAR president Bill France Jr. A week later, Allison was satisfied with the results.
Lest you think that Allison always swore by the rules, though. His 1982 Daytona 500 win is credited by many to the loose bodywork the car was equipped with. The rear bumper was barely attached and was knocked free by another car; this significantly reduced drag, as the bumper and tail panel acted like a big parachute. Speaking of parachutes, one of those may have come in handy for him in 1987.
Flying (literally…) through the tri-oval at well over 200 mph, Allison had a right-rear tire explode, turning the car sideways. Air got under the car and it lifted off, nearly ripping through the catchfence and into the spectator area. This scary crash would mark the end of unrestricted engines at the high-banked superspeedways, eventually leading to the use of restrictor plates from 1988 onward.
Bobby Allison is no longer a car owner in the Cup Series, but still attends a few events from time to time. He also has autograph sessions and meet and greets around the country, including this weekend at his Bobby Allison Showroom and Collectibles shop in Hueytown, Ala. Still a fan favorite, Bobby Allison will always be known as one of the very best.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.