Founding Members Of The Alabama Gang
Beginning with the '66 series, this 'Bama boy challenged the dominance of Carolina-born drivers for 20 years with his Alabama Gang. Allison won 84 series races (fourth), the '83 championship, and three Daytonas, including '88, when he edged his son Davey for the win.
Though Edmond and Katherine Allison bore and raised their three eldest sons, Eddie, Donnie, and Robert Arthur (Bobby) in sunny south Florida, most of the NASCAR world today remembers that trio of brothers as the founding members of the "Alabama Gang." Even so, it was in Dade County, Florida, where the boys learned how to race, and not the "Heart of Dixie" - as Alabama is sometimes called.
When Eddie, the oldest of the three Allison boys, was born in 1936, his dad was working as a service station and garage mechanic in Miami, and it's no doubt the early exposure the boys got to auto mechanics that ultimately led all three to the racetrack. Bobby made his appearance in the family next when he was born in 1937, and Donnie rounded out the racing trio in 1939. The boys spent their school years in south Florida and dabbled in a wide variety of sports. Donnie was particularly athletically inclined, and at the age of fiteen he held state of Florida championships in AAU diving and swimming.
Though the family was not rich, E.J. and Katherine made many sacrifices so that their ten children never had to want for anything. When not playing baseball and football in the back yard of their house, the boys helped Dad work on cars during afternoons and on weekends. According to Donnie, "While Dad was busy building, Eddie and I were always tinkering or tearing some engine apart. Even at home we were breaking down old bikes and putting them back together." In time, that mechanical fascination led to self-propelled transport and, ultimately, racing. Donnie got caught up in motorcycles and nearly lost his leg in a serious two wheeled wreck when he was fifteen. During high school, Bobby bought a '38 Chevrolet. It turned out to be his first race car when his grandfather got the boys interested in racing by taking them to the early stock car races held at the Miami fairgrounds. While all three brothers eventually took a turn behind the wheel of a racing car, it was Donnie and Bobby who proved to have the greatest love-and skill - for going fast. Eddie soon took to working on their race cars, and the mechanical expertise learned at his dad's knee helped his two young brothers win many modified events at the nearby Opa-Locka, Florida, Speedway.
As a young man, Bobby got a job with Carl Kiekhaefer's Mercury Outboard company. It was a natural connection since Bobby had spent many happy hours on the boat his dad kept tied up a few blocks from the family home on the Miami River. But it wasn't just the boat business that caught his attention. Race fans will recall that Kiekhaefer's Chrysler 300-based race car teams essentially had a lock on NASCAR victory lanes during the mid-fifties. According to Bobby, it was observing Kiekhaefer's racing operation that first led him to see racing as a business rather than just a hobby.
When Bobby's racing became more serious, it was only natural for his kid brother to come along on racing treks involving Bobby and older brother Eddie. In the late fifties,the Allison brothers and Red Farmer, another south Florida racer, started driving to Alabama to race because purses on the modified circuit there were better. It was in Alabama that Bobby and Donnie first established themselves as professional drivers. As mentioned, the brothers and Farmer often traveled together on the modified circuit. On one particular trip to North Carolina for a feature event, when they pulled into the track, one of the local regulars moaned, "Oh no, there's that Alabama gang." The nickname stuck, and in later years it came to also include Bobby's young son, Davey, and Neil Bonnett.
Bobby won NASCAR's national modified championship in 1962, '63, and '64 while making selected appearances in the Grand National (Winston Cup) "Big Leagues." Allison's first GN appearance came in 1961 - fittingly for a Florida Boy - at the second 100 mile qualifying race preceding the Daytona 500. Bobby was driving a No. 40-lettered '60 Chevrolet that day and he finished twentieth, three laps off of the pace. That performance gained him entree to the 500 itself, and he translated a thirty-sixth starting berth into a thirty-first-place finish. Though young Bobby didn't know it at the time, it would be sixteen more years before he would be able to park a race car in the 500's victory lane (when in 1978 he won the race in a Bud Moore Thunderbird). All told, Allison started four GN races in 1961 without much luck. By season's end he had won just $650 in GN prize money.
Allison returned to the Grand National ranks in 1965, this time behind the wheel of a Ford. He fared a bit better that season and turned in three top ten finishes. It was in 1966 that Bobby stunned the racing world by winning three Grand National events in a home-built small-block-powered Chevrolet. Win number one came at Oxford, Maine, where he put his short track background to work winning a 100mi event on the .333mi oval. Tiny Lund and Richard Petty rounded out the top three that day. Allison's two other wins in the home-built car came at short track events at Islip, New York, and Beltsville, Maryland.
It was at Bowman Gray Stadium in the race following his third win that Bobby established a reputation for fearlessness. During the event, he got into an on-track shoving match with veteran fender-rubber Curtis Turner, who had just returned to NASCAR after being banned for five years by circuit president Bill France. Turner, who'd earned the nickname "Pops" early in his career for his fondness of popping cars right off of the racetrack, hooked Allison's bumper on lap eight and spun the youngster out. Unfazed, Allison charged back, and soon the two cars were hammering each other. Turner lost the next round and spun out himself. He then crept around the track, lying in wait for Allison's Chevrolet, and the two crashed into each other for the next ten laps - even during yellow flag laps. Each spun out the other several more times until finally track officials ejected both from the race. Each was fined $100 for their ontrack antics and junior Johnson, Turner's car owner, came close to firing him for the melee. The incident was ultimately featured in a Sports Illustrated article about the race.
Bobby Allison's performance in 1966 earned him a seat in Bud Moore's factory-backed Mercury at the beginning of the 1967 season. When that relationship soured, Allison went back to driving independently backed Chevrolets. After winning a short track race in one of the Chevrolets at Savannah, he was named to drive the Cotton Owens' factory-backed Dodge that David Pearson had vacated to fill Fred Lorenzen's seat at Holman and Moody. It was Allison's first big-time driving contract. Nine races later that new combination was in victory lane at Birmingham. When Owens decided not to campaign the team Dodge at a race on the Northern tour, he gave Allison permission to run his old Chevrolet at Oxford, Maine, a race that he ultimately won. Though Owens signed off on the deal, his corporate sponsors were outraged that a team driver would win for another manufacturer, so Bobby was given his walking papers. He next showed up behind the wheel of a Fairlane that recently retired Ford driver Fred Lorenzen had persuaded Fomoco to let him campaign "his way." Lorenzen was impressed with Allison's smoothness on the track and said so. With Jake Elder providing mechanical support, Lorenzen and Allison entered the car in the American 500 in Rockingham. David Pearson, Ford's new H&M driver, sat on the pole for the race and Allison qualified third. Even so, during the race it was all Allison. He led the race on six occasions for a total of 164 laps. When the checkered flag fell, he was a full lap ahead of second-place finisher Pearson. His performance that day helped secure a factory-backed Ford ride with dealer Bondy Long's team for 1968.
While Bobby was having his up-and-down year on the circuit in 1967, younger brother Donnie was running hard for rookie of the year honors. Like Bobby before him, Donnie had run the modified circuit for a number of years before trying his hand at Grand National competition. He had made his first GN start in 1966 and returned a creditable ninth-place finish at Rockingham in an independently backed Chevrolet. In 1967, he drove a series of Chevrolets, Dodges, and Fords to four top-five finishes and the coveted top rookie honor. It earned him a factory-backed ride in Banjo Matthews' Torino for 1968, and when that season began, both he and big brother Bobby were part of Ford's "Going Thing." It was Donnie who found victory first that season when he dominated the Carolina 500 at Rockingham in Matthews' No. 27 Ford. Bobby was right on his bumper in second place at the wheel of the Chevrolet he had gone back to after leaving the Bondy Long Ford team. Bobby's first win of 1968 came a few weeks later at Islip, New York, where he beat the factory-backed teams with his independently sponsored Chevy.
Donnie stayed with Banjo and Ford for 1969 while Bobby found work at the wheel of Mario Rossi's Dodge. With the Aero-Wars, the manufacturers' aerodynamic battles, in full swing, Bobby and Donnie proved to be two of the best Aero-warriors for their respective marques. Donnie drove longnosed Torino Talladegas to victory in the National 500 at Charlotte and to nine other top-five finishes. Bobby notched five victories and rounded out the top five at six others. Team affiliations remained unchanged for both brothers in 1970, though by that time Bobby's Charger 500 had sprouted wings to become a Dodge Daytona. Both Allisons ran in the fastest pack all season. Bobby won the Atlanta 500 in March, for example, and Donnie countered with a victory at Bristol, Tennessee, the next step on the circuit. Donnie was the family superspeedway champ that season with two other long track wins in the World 600 and the Firecracker 400. Bobby contented himself with short track wins at Bristol and Hampton, Virginia.
As race fans of that era will recall, the bottom fell out of factory-backed racing in the years from 1970 to 1972. Ford was the first to fold its tent in 1970 and Mopar pulled up stakes not long after. When that happened both Allisons reverted to fielding independently sponsored cars and both dabbled briefly in Indy car racing. Donnie began the 1971 season with Banjo again but had moved to the Wood brothers by year's end to field their Cyclones. Bobby started out on his own in a Dodge. When a salary dispute resulted in David Pearson's departure from the Holman & Moody team, Bobby once again filled the seat (as he had in 1967) that Pearson had just vacated. The Holman and Moody car picked up red-and-gold No. 12 Coca-Cola sponsorship with Bobby's arrival and immediately started winning. Bobby's first outing in the car came at Talladega in the Winston 500, where he got a close-up and personal view of the back bumper of brother Donnie's Mercury as it crossed the finish line first. Bobby returned the favor three races later when he lead Donnie across the stripe at the World 600. Bobby won ten more times that season, six of which he scored in the H&M Mercury. Among the wins were superspeedway triumphs at Dover, Michigan, Talladega, and Darlington, where he notched his first Southern 500 title.
Bobby backed up his eleven victories in 1971 with ten more in 1972, when he returned "home" to his first love - Chevrolets. The Bow Tie car in question was backed by Richard Howard and prepared by junior Johnson. The success that Allison had that year was the first taste of the victories Chevrolet would enjoy in NASCAR racing over the next two decades. Allison's Coca-Cola-sponsored Monte Carlo notched the first win for that soon-to-be-famous body style at Atlanta, when he edged out A.J. Foyt's Wood Brothers' Cyclone in the Atlanta 500. He backed up the Atlanta win with another in the Dixie 500 to be the king of that Georgia track in 1972. He also scored his second straight Southern 500 win and seven other Winston Cup victories. His on-track efforts resulted in a second place finish in that season's points standing, just 120 or so back of champion Richard Petty.
While Bobby's NASCAR star burned bright during 1972, Donnie's was dimmed somewhat. He started ten races that season, for both Roger Penske (in an AMC Matador) and for Bud Moore (in his smallblock-powered Ford), but was only able to produce two top-ten finishes.
Donnie remained active in the GN ranks for several more seasons and campaigned a number of Chevrolets for several different teams. During that time, he scored three more wins, including the 1977 Talladega 500, which he won with the relief driving help of Darrell Waltrip. Donnie's final Winston Cup win came at the Dixie 500 in November 1978. It was unfortunately marred by a NASCAR scoring error that, for a while, relegated him to second place. When NASCAR officials realized their mistake, Allison was awarded the victory. Donnie continued to race until the mid-eighties. He finished his career with ten total Grand National/Winston Cup wins.
Though Donnie's career tapered off after the factory-backed racing era ended, Bobby's star continued to rise. In 1973, he left junior Johnson's employ and set out on his own in a Coca-Cola-sponsored Chevelle, scoring two wins. He continued on his own with a Chevrolet-based team in 1974, but at midseason he signed on with Roger Penske to drive a red, white, and blue Matador. "Nash's" factory-backed racing effort didn't generate much respect, even with famed former driver and Trans-Am championship winning team owner Penske at the helm. Allison quickly changed that and by the end of the year he had the Matador finishing in the top five. He even parked the car in victory lane at the season closing L.A. Times 500 at Riverside but was subsequently fined more than $9,000 when a postrace tear-down revealed illegal lifters.
When the 1975 season began, Allison somewhat redeemed himself by winning – cleanly - the season opening Winston Riverside 500 for AMC's second WC win. He stopped people from laughing at the little red, white, and blue car altogether at Daytona, where he finished second at the 500 behind Benny Parsons. AMC credibility was assured when Allison drove his No. 16 car to victory at Darlington in the Rebel 400. He made jaws drop later that year by winning the always tough Southern 500 for a clean sweep of Darlington by a Rambler.
When team owner Penske switched to Cam 2-backed Mercurys in 1976, so did team driver Allison. But by 1977 he was back in an AMC, this one fielded by his own Alabama-based racing team. In 1978, Bobby signed with famed mechanic and team owner Bud Moore, and for the next three seasons he drove refrigerator-white No. 15 Fords and Mercurys. It proved to be a successful partnership. Together, he and Moore's Spartanburg, South Carolina-based team won fourteen series events, including Allison's first triumph at the Daytona 500. It was while driving for Moore in the 1979 Daytona 500 that Bobby and Donnie formed a wrestling tag team of sorts on Daytona's back stretch. Donnie and Cale Yarborough had been battling for position on the track for a number of laps when, with just fifty laps remaining in the event, Cale's Junior Johnson-prepped Olds slid into Donnie's Hoss Ellington car. The two went careening off into the back stretch grass and ground to a halt. Seeing the shunt, Bobby stopped to check on his baby brother's condition. And that's when the fists started flying. Showing much the same style that he had displayed when banging on Curtis Turner years before, Bobby waded into the battle with Cale and the whole fracas was captured live on nationwide television. The sanctioning body was appalled, and several races later all drivers involved in the "bout" were forced to publicly "kiss and make up." Allison went on to win for Moore at Talladega (in the Winston 500) and at three other venues that year. In 1980, that duo found further superspeedway success by winning the Firecracker 400.
In 1981, Bobby went back to GM-powered race cars, this time Pontiacs and Chevrolets built by Harry Ranier-the same team that his young son Davey would drive for several years later. The championship race that year was a tight one and Allison and Darrell Waltrip were the top two in points. Ultimately, Allison would lose the title to "DW" by a mere fifty-three points. In 1982, Allison won his second Daytona 500, this time in a Di-Gard team Buick. He was the king of Daytona that year as he also finished first in the Firecracker 400. As in 1981, the driving championship came down to a two-man race, Allison and Waltrip. Allison's eight victories and six top-ten finishes, while impressive, once again came up short to Waltrip's twelve and five, respectively. Waltrip was champ again.
The planets finally lined up for Bobby Allison and his championship quest in 1983. Still with Di-Gard, Allison campaigned Miller High Life Pontiacs during his championship season. His first of six wins that year came in the Richmond 400. Allison notched his fourth Southern 500 in 1983 on his way to scoring 4,667 Winston Cup points - a too-close-for-comfort Thirty-three more than old rival Darrell Waltrip amassed. The points race was so tight that year, in fact, the championship wasn't decided until the end of the last race at Riverside. Following the checkered flag, Allison, his crew chief Gary Nelson, and team engine builder Robert Yates were all smiles. After twenty-two years of trying, Bobby Allison was NASCAR's driving champion.
Allison continued to run the circuit until a horrifying wreck at Pocono nearly took his life in 1988. After a long and painful recovery, he finally returned to the NASCAR fold as a car owner. The eighty-four victories that Bobby Allison scored in his twenty-seven-year driving career place him third on the overall NASCAR win list behind Richard Petty and David Pearson.
In addition to his other triumphs, Bobby also scored a number of off-track successes during his racing days, most notable among them being his two sons, Davey and Clifford. Born in south Florida the same year as his dad's first NASCAR start in 1961, Davey Allison grew up on the NASCAR circuit. It was only natural, then, for him to want to follow in his father's footsteps and become a racing driver in his own right. At first, father Bobby made Davey pay his dues with shop work, but finally Davey was allowed to go modified racing in 1979. By 1985, young Davey was sure that he was ready to face the challenges of big league Winston Cup competition. He made his first start that year at his hometown track, Talladega. Davey drove a Chevrolet for Hoss Ellington that day and showed promise by finishing tenth in his first superspeedway run. Davey made two more starts that season for Ellington and made five for Sadler Racing the following year before jumping into the Rookie of the Year race in 1987.
Davey's team for his first full year of Winston Cup competition was almost part of the family. Team co-owner Harry Ranier had previously provided cars for Davey's dad, and the team's engine builder, Robert Yates, was the man who had "powered" Bobby to his 1983 WC Championship. With Havoline as the major sponsor, Davey's Thunderbird that year also carried the No. 28 that his dad had campaigned at one point in his career. At Daytona, Davey qualified second, only the second time in NASCAR history that a rookie driver had started on the front row of stock car racing's "Super Bowl." Unfortunately, Davey ran into bad luck during the race and finished a distant twenty-seventh. But victory was in the offing three months later, and what better place for Davey to cinch his first WC win than Talladega. Davey qualified third for the Winston 500 that year and then led much of the way to win a race that had boasted the fastest starting field in history. (Bill Elliott sat on the pole with a qualifying speed of 212.809mph.) Later that same month Davey won a second time at Dover and ultimately won Rookie of the Year accolades with ease. He seemed destined for certain super-stardom as a NASCAR driver
The 1988 race year began on a story book note at Daytona where Davey battled for victory with his dad in the closing laps of the 500 classic. The father and son duo had qualified third and second (respectively), and in the event's waning stages it became apparent that the race was theirs to decide among themselves. The two-car-length victory Bobby scored over Davey was his third in the 500 and the first such father-and-son finish since Lee and Richard Petty had finished nose-to-tail at Heidelberg Speedway in 1960. After the race Bobby said, "It was really drivers to be in front. It was a great feeling to look back and see somebody you feel is the best coming up driver and know it's your son. It's a very special feeling and it's hard to put into words."
Davey avoided any hint of NASCAR's traditional sophomore jinx and went on to score fifteen more top-ten finishes in his second year on the circuit, including wins at Michigan and Richmond. Along the way he became one of the most popular drivers on the circuit, both with fans and his on-track rivals.
When Robert Yates took over the Ranier-Lundy operation in 1989, Allison stayed on as team driver and his black, gold, and white Thunderbirds continued to run at the front of the pack. He won two times that year (the Winston 500 and the Firecracker 400) and twice more the next season. In 1991, Davey began a serious run at the Winston Cup championship and stretched his win total to thirteen with five more victories. He won the World 600 in Charlotte in May, he showed roadrace skill in June when he won the Sears Point race, and he finished out the season with wins at Michigan, Rockingham, and Phoenix.
The 1992 race year brought five more victories, including a popular triumph in the Daytona 500. While his dad had tried seventeen years before winning his first 500, young Davey had accomplished the feat in just eight. Davey also won again at Talladega that year, making him one of the most successful drivers to ever run on that 2.66mi oval. At year's end, Davey was third in the points standings, just sixty-three behind that year's champ, Alan Kulwicki. Though 1992 had been a successful year on the track for Davey, it also held great personal tragedy for the Allison family when Davey's younger brother, Clifford, was killed in a practice crash at Michigan.
With fan and family support, Davey headed into 1993 hoping for happier days and perhaps his first Winston Cup championship. Tragically, it was not to be. On July 12, 1993, while Allison was trying to land his helicopter in the infield at Talladega, a freak accident caused the chopper to spin out of control. Though charter Alabama gang member Red Farmer (Allison's passenger) survived, Davey was pronounced dead at 7 a.m. the next day. The nineteen career victories he had scored in an all-too-short six-and-a-half full-time seasons place Davey twenty-third on the all-time win list, where he is tied with Fonty Flock, Speedy Thompson, Buddy Baker, and Neil Bonnett - another member of the Alabama Gang who tragically lost his life during practice for the 1994 Daytona 500.
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