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The following spring he and another man were lifting an automatic transmission from a car on a hoist in Allison's garage when his helper suddenly shouted, "I can't hold it!" Allison couldn't let go and his left hand was crushed beneath the heavy weight of the transmission. He was on the involuntarily retired list for nine weeks. "I decided right there," Allison said, "that if I was going to get hurt, I might as well get hurt doing something I like." When he was again operational, he returned to the modified circuit.
He won two features that year, raised his total to seven in 1960, 33 in 1961. The next year he began an amazing string, winning the national modified-special championship (a category within a category) in 1962 and 1963, and the modified title itself in 1964 and 1965.
He rarely entered Grand National events—three in 1961 and eight in 1965. "But," Allison said, "the choice was between a good modified car and a junker in the Grand Nationals, and I didn't feel it would be worth it just to say I had driven a Grand National every week."
In the meantime, Allison became the king of the bush leagues. "I figure I drove over 80 different tracks," he says. "When I would go to a city, I ran against drivers who were pretty good in their area, but, with all that traveling, there wasn't a track anywhere I wasn't familiar with. It had to give me an edge."
Last winter Allison made his decision to leave the minors pretty much behind and concentrate on the Grand Nationals. His entree was Mrs. Betty Lilly, the invalid wife of a Valdosta, Ga. realtor, who had been the sponsor of Sam McQuagg, NASCAR's 1965 Rookie of the Year. When McQuagg got a better ride for the 1966 season, Allison signed on with Mrs. Lilly. But after several months of financial haggling, he broke with her. The next day he bought a 1964 Chevelle and went home to Hueytown to make a Grand National racer out of it. Just 16 days and nights and more than $6,000 later the job was done. He and his brothers, Eddie and Donnie, plus crew member Chuck Looney, had put together a 180-mph brute.
Allison's first full season in the big time was to be a strange one. "This year has been the greatest joy and the greatest heartbreak, the greatest success and the greatest failure of any," he says. The success and joy came for the first times at Oxford, Me. and Islip, N.Y. during a northern tour in July when Bobby won the first two Grand Nationals of his career. There were also intoxicating moments in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Va. in September, where he passed Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner and Fred Lorenzen within 23 laps to take the lead in the race—only to lose with a blown engine bare laps from the end.
The heartbreak and failure came because he raced as an independent, not a factory-team driver for Plymouth, Dodge, Ford or Mercury. To the fan in the stands the differences between factory and home-built cars may seem minute, but in a game where each little part and each little gimmick can add hunks of speed, the differences are real—and crucial. The factory men almost always win. After the Curtis Turner bumping incident at Winston-Salem, Turner merely turned over his car to an expert group of mechanics and bodymen under the guidance of Junior Johnson, who is one of Ford's men, and didn't worry about anything until he showed up at Darlington the next week. Allison, on the other hand, drove the 550 miles back to Hueytown that very night and worked frantically for four days putting his car back together. He missed the regular inspection day at Darlington and the first day of qualifying, and wound up running (and winning) a qualifying race on the last day possible to get into the big show. The parts Allison winds up with are not always perfect. As brother Eddie wryly put it, "Quality control ain't all it's cracked up to be."
All of this has produced in Allison a sort of optimistic stoicism born of innate confidence, rugged experience and the clear knowledge that in due time he will cross that thin, thin line that separates the Grand National would-bes and winners. "Everything has its bad moments," he says. "I guess I just feel that when things are going badly they'll eventually take a turn for the good."
How bad can it get? In the space of two weeks last month—before and after the National 500 at Charlotte—Bobby was disturbed because he couldn't discover the cause of an unexpected blown engine, could not obtain vital parts for another engine he was rebuilding, had wiped out his racing budget to pay another parts bill, had been ridiculously overcharged at a Charlotte motel, had learned that Judy was expecting Junior Allison No. 4, and had driven 650 miles to Martinsville for the privilege of tangling with Lee Roy Yarbrough. Said Bobby's brother Eddie: "It's a good thing racing's fun."
But the bad part now appears to be behind Allison forever. At least three groups have approached him about factory—or at least well-financed—rides for next year. If one of these materializes, as it surely must, then 1967 will be a good deal more fun, and Eddie will be able to take his tongue out of his cheek.