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"Forget it," said the starter. "You don't get nothin'!" So Allison went to his pits, got his car ready and entered the feature on the 17th lap. There were three of the four "team" drivers left, and in short order Allison a) bumped No. 1 out of contention, b) spun No. 2 into the infield and c) waited on No. 3, the hotshot, and stayed with him until the right moment, then yanked his steering wheel sharply to the right and they both went hard into the wall—at the exact spot where Allison had gone in earlier. NASCAR took unkindly to that, too—$100 worth—but, as Allison said, "I never had any more trouble with them."
At the Martinsville 300, a rare modified appearance for Allison late this season, Lee Roy Yarbrough, another Grand National regular slumming it with the modifieds, quickly got on Allison's bumper and shoved him several times shortly after the start, and finally, in the No. 4 turn, nicked Allison in the left rear and spun him out. "I stopped spinning in a backward position," said Allison, "and saw Lee Roy out of the corner of my eye stalled in the infield. I put in the clutch, and the car's momentum carried me into his rear end." The Yarbrough car started to smoke badly. End of the race for Lee Roy; Allison was able to restart.
In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck takes nearly 250 pages to tell of the grandeur of his American odyssey, but near his journey's end he writes: "The road became an endless stone ribbon, the hills obstructions, the trees green blurs, the people simply moving figures with heads but no faces. All the food along the way tasted like soup; even the soup.... There was no night, no day, no distance." In these lines Steinbeck might have been paraphrasing Allison. In the South the modified circuit runs in a long, sweeping, haphazard curve from Baton Rouge in Louisiana up through Mississippi and into Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., into Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn., back down to Atlanta and Macon and Augusta, Ga., through the Carolinas—everywhere in the Carolinas—and finally Virginia, through Martinsville and as far north as Richmond. For Allison the past eight years have meant being on the road continuously, a rapid succession of rooming houses and cheap garage apartments, catching sleep whenever he could between races, racing in Mobile on Friday night, Montgomery on Saturday and Birmingham on Sunday, racing for three to five nights a week to keep enough money on hand to do it all over again the next week, eating undercooked bacon and overcooked eggs at the Eagle Grill and Sue's Hamburger Shop and Tommy's Wayside Inn. But mainly driving all night or all day to get to a city just in time to wheel the racer off the trailer and qualify, hoping he wouldn't fall asleep at the wrong time, as he did one night on swamp-lined U.S. 17 between Brunswick and Savannah. He awoke and shuddered to a stop not more than 10 feet from the front of a big semi that had been frantically blinking its lights and honking its horn while Allison, slumped over the steering wheel, quietly tooled down the wrong side of the road. Or other times, when he would fall asleep in the driver's seat and Judy would reach over and punch and jab at the steering wheel and accelerator and keep the car on the road as best she could.
The modifieds are at the lower end of racing's social spectrum. The drivers know it, the fans know it and some promoters take advantage of it. In 1960, Allison's second full year of modified racing, he went to Richmond for a 400-lap race without enough money even to buy tires for his car. He borrowed a set and put up a magneto and a carburetor against the prize money as collateral, then finished 12 laps in front of the second-place car. When the race was over, the second-place man, a local driver, made a visual protest, claiming that Allison's car did not have a legal fire wall. Allison was over a barrel. He was several hundred miles from home, he was broke and the "friend" who had loaned him the tires was screaming for Allison's magneto and carburetor, worth about three times the value of the tires. The protest was illegal to begin with—visual protests, which involve the question of legal equipment, have to be made before a race even begins—and invalid, but the NASCAR steward in charge of the race didn't relent until Bobby had paid the runner-up $100 blackmail money to withdraw the protest.
The promoters do take risks; they put on shows and depend on good crowds to take them out of the red. When the crowds are small, the drivers are often asked to forego their appearance fees and take a cut in the prize money. The drivers have no alternative (half a loaf is better than none and, besides, we need something to show for this weekend) but to accept the cut against the day when the crowds will be better. But the next time, though the house may be full, the promoters conveniently forget.
Robert Arthur Allison was born in Miami, the fourth oldest of 10 children of a service-station equipment supplier. His grandfather took him to his first race for modified sportsmen at the nearby Opa Locka Speedway when he was 9, and as far as he was concerned, at least, there was little doubt from then on that he would one day race cars himself. He was driving his father's 1949 Studebaker pickup by the time he was 12, and got a Florida driver's license the day he turned 14.
In high school, cars quickly became a passion. He bought a jalopy. On the way to and from school with a group of friends he often drove into empty fields and practiced spinning the car or burning figure eights with the screaming rear tires. In the spring of his senior year he received the reluctant permission of his parents to enter an amateur race at the nearby Hialeah Speedway. "Once I got them by the first hurdle," he recalls "the others became easier." Allison finished a heady 10th in a field of 55 in his first race, for jalopies, but although he took several heat races that spring, he never won a feature. "I did set a couple of records, though. I was the first amateur driver to roll a car at Hialeah, and then the first to roll one twice."
At his high school graduation, after this inauspicious start, Allison postponed his racing career to take a job testing outboard engines for Mercury in Oshkosh, Wis. and Sarasota, Fla. He did nothing to distinguish himself except nearly freeze to death in Lake Winnebago one winter day when heavy swells sank his boat in 18 weather. He survived that, but not the cantakerous disposition of the Mercury boss, Carl Kiekhaefer, and in June of 1956 returned to Miami.
By then he had learned the skills of a master mechanic. He opened a garage and for the next two years developed this talent further. In 1958 he worked out a deal to service a modified in exchange for a ride in a hobby car, a racer that may be described as a jalopy with a street engine. His parents, alas, now raised strong objections, so he went underground. From June until September they never suspected that a fellow named Robert Sunderman, whose name kept appearing in the Hollywood, Fla. racetrack results, was in real life their very own son, Robert Arthur. He was innocently betrayed at dinner one evening by his younger brother, Tommy, who had gone to work at Hollywood so he could see his big brother race. By then Allison had built his first modified, a '34 Chevy coupe, and was racing whenever he could in the Miami area.
During this period two events took place that had a profound effect on his life, both professionally and personally. In September, 1958, he crashed at Hollywood and his car caught fire. A young blonde in the crowd, Judy Bjorkman, who was sitting with a friend of Allison's, became terribly upset. The friend figured that if a girl could be so unnerved about a thing like that without even knowing the driver, the least he could do was arrange an introduction. Just over a year later, Judy and Bobby were married.