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When Bobby Allison won the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on the Fourth of July, he got out of his Buick, smiled at the cameras and declared, "I love apple pie, Chevrolet, Ronald Reagan and Bear Bryant." It wasn't a political message but an expression of Allison's faith and optimism.
Try this for faith and optimism: Allison is 44. He has been a race driver for 28 years, 17 in the NASCAR Grand National ranks. He's one of the four greatest stock car drivers of all time. The other three—Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough—have won the Grand National championship, the Winston Cup for the most points earned during a racing season, seven, three and three times, respectively. Allison has finished second four times, including last year when he was in contention into the final race before losing to Darrell Waltrip. Allison's car was often the fastest on the track, and he won a career-high $644,311 for his team in '81. But his racing philosophy didn't mesh with that of the team's owner or the crew chief. So he quit and signed last December with a new team, DiGard/ Gatorade, which had a 10-year history of turmoil without a single championship to show for it. DiGard is the 22nd different team Allison has driven for during his career; this difficulty in finding a comfortable niche, he acknowledges, is one of the reasons he hasn't won the Winston Cup.
But Allison and DiGard have been good for each other. The collaboration has brought Allison six wins and 3,142 points so far this year, for a slim lead over Terry Labonte (3,077) before the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day. And Allison has brought stability to DiGard, not to mention the Big Banana—the Daytona 500, which Allison won in his first race for the team. Says crew chief Gary Nelson, 29, "We're at peace. We haven't had a cross word all year. That's what I've always strived for, to be on a team like that. DiGard is finally enjoying the potential we've always had." Nelson was sweeping the garage floor in 1977; he is DiGard's crew chief now largely as a result of a process of elimination—team owner Bill Gardner fires crew chiefs the way George Steinbrenner fires managers. Nelson could go on and on about Allison's pluses. Bobby is firm but patient with mechanics. He's the best in the business at setting up a chassis. Because Allison has run his own team so many times, he understands a crew chiefs problems. Because he has so many racing miles behind him—perhaps more than any driver ever—he has seen every on-track pitfall there is and knows how to avoid them; his instinct for dodging pileups is unmatched. He has incredible stamina. And, most important to a crew chief, he never gives an inch on the track.
Here is where we have the Bobby Allison paradox. Off the track he's as warm, generous, patient and true-blue as race drivers come. But on the track he has a ruthless streak as wide as the racing groove. His racing mottos are "Whatever it takes" and "Don't give any, don't ask for any."
Fender rubbing is part of the stock car racing game, and every driver has had his share of incidents. Allison has had more than his share. In one race alone this year, he was involved in three separate incidents with two other drivers. Said Morgan Shepherd, a Grand National sophomore who smacked him twice, " Allison drove like an idiot." Said Labonte, who collided with Allison trying to lap him three laps from the finish, "Who does Allison think he is, God?"
Allison contends he has never been at fault. He concedes he has crowded other drivers unintentionally, or slid into them when he might have been trying too hard, but he pleads innocent to anything else. "I can't readily think of a situation where I was to blame for bumping," he says. "I always felt like I was right, like the other people didn't understand the situation, the whole picture, and consequently they reacted on less than 100 percent knowledge. Then I was put in a position of retaliating or defending myself or whatever." Another Allison motto might be "Don't initiate, retaliate."
Though it wouldn't be at all hard to find a few dozen drivers who would fall down laughing at Allison's claim to 28 years of innocence, his case isn't without merit. First, there is his basic fairness; he does indeed practice a two-edged version of the golden rule. "Don't give any, don't ask for any" might be one interpretation. Second, no one can survive 28 years in oval racing if he's seriously looking for trouble.
Allison was one of the protagonists in the most famous feud in stock car racing. It's over now, but for years, in the late '60s and early '70s, he and Richard Petty went after each other on the track like pit bulls. Allison had been king of the modified division but in 1967 was a new boy on the Grand National circuit, which Petty was dominating that year. It started with a fender bashing in the next-to-last race of the year at North Wilkesboro, N.C. and simmered until the summer of 1968, when, after they had whapped each other at a race at Islip, N.Y., Petty's crew, led by his brother, Maurice, and cousin, Dale Inman, went after Allison and his crew, led by Allison's brother Eddie. A mass scuffle ensued.
Petty's and Allison's explanations for the feud are identical: He started it; all I did was retaliate. "And you know," says Allison, "when a person retaliates, you don't really get even, you get up a little. And so if he rubbed me a little, I rubbed him a little harder. Well, then he didn't remember that he just rubbed me, so he rubbed me a little harder than I just rubbed him. And then I rubbed him a little harder again, and the next thing you know we're knocking each other's fenders off."
For five years it went on like that, on superspeedways as well as short tracks; at times their "rubbing" was downright dangerous, and they both knew it.