Bobby Allison - Life Goes On

Bobby Allison - Life Goes On by Ellen Siska Bobby Allison is humble, despite the extreme highs and lows in his life. Or maybe it's because of them. His faith remains steadfast. ...

Bobby Allison - Life Goes On


Ellen Siska

Bobby Allison is humble, despite the extreme highs and lows in his life. Or maybe it's because of them. His faith remains steadfast. "I appreciate what God has given me," he says. "I keep dropping back to my dad's number one lesson to me. 'I can do the best I can every day.' So I have to do the best I can today."

In December, 1983, President Ronald Reagan telephoned Bobby Allison during festivities at New York's Waldorf-Astoria to congratulate him on his NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Vice President George Bush made a surprise visit to the Waldorf to join the celebration. A White House state dinner honoring Allison followed. "It was really a special treat, and quite an honor," Allison recalls, smiling. "It was a very special event."

The state dinner was not his first visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bobby and several other NASCAR dignitaries had attended a dinner on the White House lawn in 1978 with President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. "I was pleased that President Carter told the world that he enjoyed racing, which helped a lot of people say 'well, if it's okay for the president, it's okay for us.'"

In the summer of 1988, the White House would call again. This time, though, Bobby Allison couldn't speak with the president. He was unconscious in a Pennsylvania hospital room, near death, the result of a horrifying crash during a race at Pocono.

"They sent some mail and tried to connect by phone, but for a long time, I didn't do much communicating. Other people did the talking and the listening, and they told me what was going on."

Allison was unconscious for three weeks and spent months in the hospital. Two years of intensive physical and speech therapy followed. His career as a NASCAR Winston Cup driver was over.

"I was in incredibly good physical shape and physical condition when it happened, or I would not have survived it; because nobody survives a T-bone crash at 150 miles per hour and they're sitting still . . ." His voice trails off as he reflects on the accident that nearly ended his life. "It was just one of those things," he says softly.

"That old doctor - it was Dr. Harry Stevens from Allentown - said 'hey, who's with this guy? I need to drill a hole in his read right now.' He didn't have anything to do with the racetrack, or the racing, or the emergency at the hospital. He was just walking down the hall from seeing one of his patients, and he looked at me and said 'this guy is dying.' I was a few minutes from dying when he saw me," Allison says. Was it Divine intervention? "Yeah, we don't understand a lot of things. You have to be thankful," he adds.

Up to that fateful day in Pennsylvania, Bobby Allison had had an outstanding career. He was known as the leader of the "Alabama Gang," working out of a shop in Hueytown, Alabama. He won the Daytona 500 three times, and was the runner-up three times. He was IROC champion in 1980. He won the 1983 Winston Cup championship, and finished second in the standings five times. He claimed more than 600 short track wins, and his 84 Winston Cup victories put him in a tie with Darrell Waltrip for third on the all-time list. He was a favorite among the fans, being voted Most Popular Driver six times.

He was also father to a young upstart named Davey, a son who was following in his father's very large footsteps. One of Bobby's happiest memories is the day in February, 1988, when Bobby led his son across the finish line to win the Daytona 500. It was the first time father and son finished first and second in a NASCAR Winston Cup race since 1960, when Lee and Richard Petty finished 1-2 at Heidelberg (Pa.) Speedway.

With Bobby no longer able to race, he turned his attention to the promising racing careers of not only Davey, but also another son, Clifford. Tragically, it was not meant to be. In August, 1992, Clifford was killed in a crash at Michigan Speedway. Just eleven months later, in July, 1993, Davey died as the result of a helicopter crash. Davey had been on his way to watch close family friend and fellow "Alabama Gang" member Neil Bonnett practice at Talladega. In another tragic twist, Bonnett was killed during a practice run at Daytona just seven months later.

"I've had a strange positioning with the way life is since my injury and the way things happened. To lose Clifford, and then to lose Davey, and then to lose Neil Bonnett . . .," he pauses. "Things just kept going bad when things had gone good. But as I really look back on it, I'd had good days and bad days all along. I guess in earlier years, it was just easier to overlook the bad things and just go on and keep working toward the next success that was going to be there."

The most recent tragic twist of fate to impact Bobby Allison happened on January 17, the day he was inducted into the North Carolina Motorsports Hall of Fame in Mooresville, North Carolina. Funeral services were held that morning for T. Wayne Robertson, head of sports marketing for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., who was killed January 14 in a boating accident while duck hunting with friends.

"To go into the North Carolina Motorsports Hall of Fame and be from Alabama and be the second one ever going into that hall of fame, with so many really deserving guys in North Carolina, was special for me. To have that on the day that we buried T. Wayne Robertston, who was the number one friend to all of racing - to Winston, and to NASCAR, and to the competitors - it was so low, such a heartbreak to lose him." He pauses again, and then continues. "The only thing I can say is at least we finished the day on a high note. For me to go into the North Carolina Hall of Fame behind Richard Petty is a pretty big honor. It was such a tribute to me and such a pleasure for me, but it was so hard to enjoy right then because of the circumstances."

"I look at my whole career and it's been highs and lows. Really high highs, and really low lows. I would have something really good happen for me and somebody else would have some sort of a really bad deal. If I would have a really bad situation, somebody else would be having some great success. The day I tore the fence down at Talladega, Davey won the race . . . those kinds of things," he says.

That victory was Davey Allison's first win, and it happened in his Rookie of the Year season in 1987. Bobby's car had gone high up into the catch fence on the frontstretch, tearing out a large chunk of the fence and narrowly missing hitting several spectators. That incident is cited as the reason NASCAR instituted the use of restrictor plates on superspeedways, a decision that remains charged with controversy.

"Racing needs government. At the time, the speeds had outrun the ability to control the cars and to contain the cars," Allison says. "The restrictor was the most fair and the most even and the most sensible thing that they could do. But it got the worst reputation. So many people said 'oh, this restrictor plate . . . if I didn't have this restrictor plate, I could be winning.' Well, yeah, if everybody else had one and you didn't, you could be winning," he states incredulously.

"It was the most fair regulation that they could do, but it got such a bad reputation, wrongly. I mean, the people that complained about it and the people that say, 'oh, if I had more power, I could drive out of the . . .'" He interrupts himself. "Who are they trying to kid? If they're holding their gas pedal wide open, which is what you're supposed to do if you're racing that kind of a race track, I don't care if you've got 1500 horsepower. It doesn't accelerate when you push the gas. It doesn't pull you out of trouble. It pushes you into more, worse, trouble," he emphasizes.

What to do? "Right now, I think they need a way smaller engine," he says. "If I'm wrong, they need 426 Hemis with dual four barrels, fuel injectors, you know? Let's go ahead and go 250 miles an hour. If I'm wrong, then let's go the other way. That's how I feel about that."

What about putting the "stock" back in stock car racing? "They need to have the front of the car look like the front of a car out there on the highway. It has a big opening that lets air into the radiator to cool the engine. Maybe they need to get rid of the front spoilers. Yeah, sure, the front spoilers kept their air from going to the front to make the cars handle better. But it made them handle better so they could go faster." He smiles at the irony.

"What we did," he emphasizes, " is we raced cars that looked like the car that was sitting in the driveway, and that got people interested and enthused and excited, and they had to be at the next race."

These days, Bobby Allison spends a lot of time on the road, handling public speaking engagements and autograph sessions. He enjoys visiting friends and an uncle in Florida, and spending time with his 91-year-old mother, who lives across the street from him in Hueytown.

He shares his home with his daughter, Bonnie, her husband, and their four children. Another daughter, Carrie, lives in North Carolina, and he visits her as often as he can. His daughters have even introduced him to the world of the Internet. "It's all brand new to me. I'd heard about it and heard about it. I was amazed!" he enthuses. "The information that's available is incredible."

- Ellen Siska - Motorsport News International

Exclusive interview took place in York, PA, January 24, 1998.

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Darrell Waltrip , Richard Petty , Bobby Allison , Davey Allison