SI Vault
Kim Chapin
November 28, 1966
Smash him in the rear, hook him into the wall, ram him broadside if you can—that's how it's done in stock car racing. And that's how Bobby Allison, a pious and mannerly man off the tracks but a devout car-slammer on them—a dedicated engine-tinkerer, too—has clawed up from the bush leagues to become the sport's newest hero
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 28, 1966

A Wild, Wicked Race To The Big Time

Smash him in the rear, hook him into the wall, ram him broadside if you can—that's how it's done in stock car racing. And that's how Bobby Allison, a pious and mannerly man off the tracks but a devout car-slammer on them—a dedicated engine-tinkerer, too—has clawed up from the bush leagues to become the sport's newest hero

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

One whole week later, when the goldflake Galaxies and pearlpaint Chevelles and fastback Chargers and Blue Angel Plymouths were gathered for the Southern 500 under the hotwet South Carolina sun at the Darlington International Raceway, they were still talking about it. Little knots of men—mechanics and drivers who couldn't suppress their smiles, grimfaced, image-conscious officials of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, track officials counting their soldout house—all gathered and talked about how that young reallyniceguy, Bobby Allison, Huey-town's Bobby Allison, who lives in a modest brick house and works out of a garage strewn with engine blocks, camshafts and racing pistons right there in his own backyard, who is married to his home-town girl and has three kids who call everybody "sir" and then beat hell out of Daddy on the living room floor every evening, and has that crazy mutt named Underdog; how young, likable Bobby Allison had taken on Curtis Turner a week before at the tight, little (quarter-mile) paved Winston-Salem track and broken just about every rule of racing ethics and morality in one big fender-smashing, bumper-bumping mess. And how when it was finished everybody was expecting ol' Curtis, who has won more stock car races than anyone else in history, who wears a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and Hollywood shades and drinks and carries on and is the original southern good ol' boy maybe more than Junior Johnson even, expecting ol' Curtis to go at young Bobby with his fists and maybe his cowboy boots, too, and nothing happened. Except that one month later, when the racers were in Turner's home town of Charlotte, Curtis invited Bobby to a couple of parties out at his place.

Winston-Salem is not an important race on the NASCAR Grand National calendar. The purse is not large, the points toward the driving championship are not many, but everybody shows up, as they had nine days before that at Columbia, S.C., for a bit of fun at 100 miles around a half-mile dirt track. At that one, Allison, racing in his own red-and-white 1964 Chevelle, sat on the pole, and Turner, in a yellow 1966 Galaxie owned by Junior Johnson, started beside him. Just before the starter's green flag dropped, a strange announcement came over the track loudspeaker. An unidentified person had just offered Turner $500 if he could lead the first lap. Turner went over to Allison and said, in effect, that if Bobby would let him by, $250 of that was for Bobby.

"I didn't think the first lap would mean too much," Allison said, "and so I agreed." But almost immediately the race turned into a seven-car scramble with a whole lot of fender-slapping going on, heavily involving Allison, Turner and David Pearson. "A lot of people thought the Turner thing started right there," Allison said, "but that wasn't so." (The $500 wasn't so, either. Turner did lead the first lap, but later discovered the offer had been a prank.)

At Winston-Salem, Turner got on Allison's tail and started shoving him all around the track. Allison did the only thing he could. He let Turner's Galaxie get past his Chevelle and began bumping Turner, a natural action but a violent breach of etiquette, which states quite clearly, although as informally as the English constitution, that rookies shall not tangle with their elders, especially if that elder happens to be Curtis Turner. It was now Turner's move, and when he got the opportunity he moved in under Allison and hooked him—spun him out. Again Allison retaliated in the only way he could. He spun Turner out. That ended the preliminaries. By now Turner was a bit more than unhappy with the way the evening was going. He waited on Allison and, when he got the chance, clobbered the little Chevelle broadside. Allison limped to the infield with a dead engine. Dead engine? Not on your life. Turner came around again, this time following slowly behind the safety car, which was leading the pack, yellow caution flags fluttering, while the track maintenance crews cleaned up the debris. By now it was difficult to find an unmarked piece of metal on either car. Allison's "dead" engine suddenly roared to life and—bop-po—he returned Turner's compliment by slamming him broadside. Both drivers got out of their wrecked cars and without a word returned to the pits.

"I didn't want to do what I did," Allison said, "but I felt I had to. I wasn't happy about it. In fact, I was nervous all the time I was doing it. We really did a job on each other."

That race started and ended the Allison-Turner trouble, apparently with no hard feelings. But NASCAR was not convinced. On the Saturday before Darlington's Labor Day Southern 500, Allison and Turner were paged over the track loudspeaker for an audience with Lin Kuchler, NASCAR executive manager, and Johnny Bruner Sr., a tough old-timer who is the field manager for NASCAR. Kuchler, young and sincere, made a couple of bad jokes and said something like I'm sure there aren't any hard feelings left but if there are let's not tell anybody about them. We love a good image. Now let's shake hands and that will be $100 each, please, for your trouble. Bruner added, "Yeah, I don't imagine there are any hard feelings left, either, but just in case there are, the next time one of you guys tries something like that you both get suspended for the year." End of audience.

On the surface it was a minor incident, one that might happen half a dozen times a year in the rough-and-tumble world of stock car racing. But this one was a bit different, for it strengthened an opinion held by just about every knowledgeable observer in stock car racing—namely, that Bobby Allison of Hueytown, Ala. is on his way to becoming the next superstar of the Grand National circuit, right up there with Lorenzen and Petty and Johnson and Turner and even those heroes of the past—Fireball Roberts and Little Joe Weatherly. Not because he cracked up a car, of course. Anybody can do that. But because he didn't give way, which is often what automobile racing is all about.

For Allison it has been the only way. Until this season, when he decided to compete almost exclusively in the Grand Nationals (the best and richest stock car series, for cars no more than three model-years old), his career had been confined to the modified-sportsman-hobby-amateur circuits—the minor leagues of stock car racing—living with and racing against drivers like Coo Coo Marlin, Friday Hassler, Freddy Fryar, Red Farmer and his brother Donnie. Mostly he drove the little modifieds, which are nothing more than souped-up Ford 427s, Chevrolet 327s or "mystery engines" surrounded by reclaimed junk—1934 Chevy coupes or 1938 Ford sedan bodies or whatever else is available. Humpy Wheeler knows all about that. Humpy works for the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. His job is to get stock car drivers to run on Firestones, and he knows just about everything there is to know about the sport. "Compared to the modified circuit," he says, "Grand National racing is Philadelphia's Main Line, and almost every top driver has known what it's like to live on nothing, making ends meet until maybe the big money comes. Everything a driver has is tied up in his own car. If he blows an engine or crashes, that's it. It's not like a baseball player who breaks his bat. He just takes another one off the rack. The modifieds are a rough world. Not too many other professional athletes have had their lives threatened by a tire wrench, or done their work half-gassed or popping green hornets or bennies because they've got to stay awake to drive three and four nights a week and haul their equipment for eight or nine hours between races. There are so many unwritten rules, especially for rookies—like when you can bump a guy and get away with it, when you can go after the big boys and when you'd better hang back. Things like that. Bobby has broken a lot of these rules, and this is what gets him into trouble, but this is also what will make him great. He's a charger, and chargers are going to win everything in three, four, five years because the engines and the tires are getting so much better that, in the Grand Nationals, what used to be a 500-mile endurance test is getting to be nothing more than a sprint. Allison's got everything—tremendous confidence, especially. There are some drivers who will never get any better, never get out of the modifieds. But they'll never say that about Bobby."

The first impression of Allison when he walks onto a track, dressed in loafers, mechanic's pants and a black nylon jacket, slightly slouched and carrying his racing helmet in a bag like a bowling ball, is that of a shy grasshopper—thin but wiry. He is 28, not old for a race driver, stands 5 feet 11 and after a hefty meal weighs 165 pounds, which is a big improvement over 1955, when he graduated from high school at an anemic 123, too small to do anything except be student manager of the football, basketball and baseball teams. He is a fair bowler (160 average), a proficient water skier, loves to shoot quail and dove at Mud Creek just down below Hueytown, and he neither smokes nor drinks hard liquor, although he is not averse to a beer or two. A Catholic, he worries that he is not sincere enough about his religion, but with his wife, Judy, attends Mass every Sunday, says the blessing before meals with Judy and their three children, David, 5, Bonnie, 3, and Clifford, 2, joining in, and even in restaurants when the kids are quick enough to remind them. At Rockingham, N.C. in October he gave the prerace invocation: he was the first driver ever selected for such an honor. "I was very pleased," Allison said.

Hueytown is a sort of sub-suburb, resting quietly on the outskirts of Bessemer, which in turn rests on the outskirts of Birmingham. Allison's house is modest enough, with three bedrooms and an adjoining carport and a living room loaded with a TV set and other spoils acquired when he was named NASCAR's most popular modified driver of 1965. Trophies—huge trophies—fill up most of one end of the living room. A large pop art painting with a stock car theme, given to Allison as part of a racing prize, does not hang there. Judy put her foot down. The residence occasionally has the feel of a town racing forum. Drivers Red Farmer and Donnie Allison live nearby and stop in frequently, and so do the postman, mechanics from a Chevy garage, a restaurant owner who restores cars and other assorted townspeople.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4
Related Topics
Robert Arthur Allison 1 0 0
Curtis Turner 13 0 1
Bobby Allison 34 0 0
NASCAR 773 0 17
Joe Lee Johnson 1 0 0