Ethos

Fishing for Peace with NASCAR Legend Bobby Allison

The stock-car icon has found plenty of ways to keep his smile intact.

Bobby Allison’s casts look like outtakes from Bassmaster magazine: long, glittering threads that land in the water with barely a ripple. Then he hands me the rod. My first two throws fall short, then the third floats out in a lazy arc that looks promising—until it hooks itself around the dock and gets more tangled up than a multicar wreck on a superspeedway’s back stretch. Even the fish look embarrassed.

“The right guy or gal could teach you to cast one of these things properly,” Allison says. Then he smiles, and with meaningful emphasis on the second word, adds, “After you untangle it a few times, you’ll catch on better.”

There are two Bobby Allisons. There’s the one who traded paint with Richard Petty on a weekly basis for almost 30 years, whose most famous Daytona 500 isn’t any of the three he won but the one where he punched Cale Yarborough in the face on live national TV. Then there’s the man who will patiently climb into a paddle boat and wrestle with a fishing lure after a journalist who can’t tell a bass from a trout wraps it around the dock’s muddy leg. This Bobby Allison has mellowed from his racing days, some by time and some by grief. At 81 years old, he’s had plenty of both, and he finds peace in fishing.

Still dapper at 81, Bobby Allison has one of the most thrilling and tragic stories in American motorsports. He’s still active in the NASCAR community, but these days he spends more time in the driver’s seat of a paddle boat chasing bass than in a stock car chasing checkered flags.

Luckily for the bass in Lake Norman, North Carolina, we never get back on the water because Allison has a busy schedule. He has a lunch interview and an evening flight. “Staying busy is better than being lonely,” he says. Allison keeps a full calendar. He’s dating a nice lady in Florida. His brother Donnie lives nearby, and his daughters visit regularly, but there are some holes in his life that can’t be filled. Stock-car racing demands sacrifices, and little could anyone know way back in 1955 what it would take from him.

It wasn’t until Allison got behind the wheel of a race car that he found himself not just equal, but better than most of the guys around him. “In my first race there were about 30 cars, and I ran seventh, and I thought I did OK. There were 23 guys behind me,” he says. “Second week there were 40 cars there, and I finished seventh again. Figured I was doing better because there were more guys behind me. Third week there were about 50 cars there, and I won.”

These were local races on South Florida’s flat, paved third-mile Hialeah Speedway, and Allison was still in high school, racing a ’38 Chevrolet. He was doing it with threadbare approval from his parents, in the form of a much-begrudged written permission slip.

“I went to my mom and I said, ‘Mom, if you sign this for me, I’ll improve my grades in school,’” he recalls. “She signed so fast, she didn’t even read it, and that’s how I raced the first week. Then when I got ready to go to the second week, she says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going racing.’ She said, ‘I didn’t give you permission for two weeks.’ I says, ‘Mom, you didn’t read it. You gave me permission for 100 years.’”

When they realized they’d been bamboozled, Allison’s parents shipped him off to work for his uncle in Alabama, which backfired when the kid realized how many tracks were up there and how much better the races paid. He ended up inviting brother Donnie and fellow Florida racer Charles “Red” Farmer up to join him, and they won so much that they got the “Alabama Gang” nickname. The Allison brothers stayed there most of their careers.

Allison continued to win. In his garage, he points to old race flyers and advertisements, each displaying a brightly painted stock car. “I won with Ford. I won with Mercury,” he says. “I won with Chevy and Pontiac and Buick and Dodge and Plymouth. AMC.”

Bobby Allison began his driving career in circle-track jalopies and worked his way up to a Winston Cup championship.

To move around so much wasn’t the smoothest way through a NASCAR career. Most drivers settled into a groove by the mid-’60s, becoming a Ford Guy or a Dodge Guy or a Buick Guy and developing relationships with the brands’ important PR men in Detroit. That gave them bargaining power if there were disagreements with tech officials or scuffles with other drivers. NASCAR bigwigs didn’t much care about upsetting a single team, but they sure didn’t want to piss off a big manufacturer.

Allison never had this safety net. After three decades of racing, he had driven for more than 20 teams, rarely more than two seasons in a row with the same make of car. There was nobody to go to bat for him.

It’s important to Allison you don’t feel sorry for him, because he takes responsibility for his prickly reputation. He never quite gelled with crew chiefs and car owners. From his very first NASCAR job driving trucks for Mercury Outboard Motors racer Carl Kiekhaefer to racing for big-budget owners like Holman and Moody or Cotton Owens, Allison just had trouble putting up with his bosses. It’s hard to imagine now because everybody seems to love him, but Allison thinks his biggest hurdle in racing was his difficult personality. “I never knew how to smooth out resentment,” he recognizes. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even know I’d made someone mad.”

In 1988, Allison won his third Daytona 500, with son Davey close behind. It was perhaps the greatest day of his life, but he can’t remember it due to a head injury later that year. The family endured more tragedy in the ’90s, but Bobby and his wife, Judy, made it through to support other NASCAR families.

It’s not in a Southern stock car racer’s makeup to talk much about his feelings, but Allison is a thoughtful man. “I felt like I ended up going it alone,” he reflects. “I blame myself for that. I just didn’t have the communication skills to keep those people in my corner. When Junior Johnson called me to come drive his cars [in 1972], I thought, man, this is it. But I just couldn’t communicate with him, and it frustrated me. And when I drove the Indy cars for [Roger] Penske, I couldn’t make the crew listen to me. They wanted the car their way, and if I had a suggestion, they’d do the opposite. I was a loner. And in racing, I wanted to do it just so.” He holds up his hands, placing borders around an imaginary set of rules. “Perfectly. Clean and neat. I maybe wasn’t so good on a team. You know, your teammate’s right there and he can win if you don’t put extra effort on, but if you put extra effort on, you could keep him from winning. And I would put the extra effort on.”

Unlike many NASCAR drivers, Bobby Allison wasn’t loyal to one make or model. He drove ’em all, and when asked which 
he liked best, he answers, “The ones 
that won.”

Here’s an example. In 1973, Allison drove a BRE Datsun for Peter Brock’s Trans-Am team as a publicity stunt, and it went great. While at the track, Don Nichols, who ran the Shadow Can-Am team, approached him. “I was asked if I wanted to drive the Shadow, the second car to Jackie Oliver’s lead,” Allison says. “I went 8 mph faster than Jackie Oliver did in that car that weekend, which he didn’t like much. It meant I no longer was welcome to drive it.” Looking back, Allison notes that maybe if he’d only gone 1 mph faster, not 8, he might have had a ride. But it never occurred to him to slow down for political reasons.

His performance in the Shadow caught Penske’s attention, and the famous team owner asked him to test his Indy cars. Allison was quick, but he had bad luck in both the 1973 and 1975 Indianapolis 500s. After the second engine failure, he was done with open-wheel racing. “I took off my fireproof suit and my fireproof gloves and my fireproof everything and threw ’em in the trash,” he says. “Went back to stock cars and won.”

Allison in a McLaren at the 1975 Indianapolis 500.

I’m eavesdropping at this point, because Allison invited me to sit in on his other interview. It’s set up over a lunch table in a big boathouse saloon, and Allison is acting out passes and crashes with his hands over a plate of crab cakes. When asked if his team was purposely cheating when the bumper fell off his car in the 1982 Daytona 500 (he won), he responds, “We won everything with that same car with the bumper on, too.” He denies he gained any advantage and certainly denies it was set up to fall off.

Of course, the story of the 1979 Daytona 500 comes up. It was the first 500-lap race televised live from start to finish and is widely believed to be the event that took NASCAR from a Southern hobby to America’s motorsport. Right at the end, Cale Yarborough went to pass Donnie Allison and sent him into the grass. Bobby pulled over to check on his brother, and that led to the most famous fisticuffs in American auto racing.

“[Yarborough] said it was my fault, and I think I questioned his ancestry, and then I think I questioned his ancestry again,” Allison says. “He hit me in the face with his helmet. I felt like I suffered quickly in any altercation and didn’t want that to happen. But in this case, I felt like if I didn’t do something, I’d be running from him the rest of my life. He ended up beating on my fists with his nose.”

The participants may have been embarrassed to show stock-car racing in a less than sophisticated light, but the audience loved it. The NASCAR Hall of Fame in Daytona Beach, Florida, today has an exhibit dedicated to it.

What really should be in the Hall of Fame is Allison’s smile. It slips in at the edges of his words and then takes over at the end of his stories, like “Heh, can you believe that?”

It’s somewhat incredible he can smile, because his story gets sad. At Pocono Speedway in 1988, Allison wrecked on the opening lap and nearly died. His head injury ended his driving career, but even worse, he lost all of his memories of the preceding 12 months. The only thing he recalls is winning the fishing tournament in the infield at Daytona International Speedway.

“I caught the most fish of anyone,” he said earlier while we were still on the dock. He only caught two, but “nobody else caught any.”

Taking a break to speak with the “Dinner with Racers” podcast.

Why he remembers that but not taking the checkered flag for his third and final win at the Daytona 500—with his son Davey in second—he cannot say. It seems extra cruel because in 1993, Davey was killed in a helicopter crash over Talladega Superspeedway, just 11 months after Bobby’s younger son Clifford died in a crash during practice at Michigan International Speedway. Their deaths tore Bobby and his wife, Judy, apart. Bobby’s recovery after his own crash had been incomplete, and all of their remaining racing hopes resided in their boys. The divorce was hard on both of them, as it went against their religious beliefs and their long history together. Judy had been there since the beginning, through every wreck and new sponsor and hard season. Without her, Bobby was truly alone.

For three years their grief kept them apart, but in 2000, a new sorrow brought them back together. Adam Petty, grandson of Allison’s longtime rival, Richard Petty, crashed and was killed during practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. At his funeral, Bobby and Judy reconnected and later remarried. They moved to North Carolina, away from the memories of Alabama, though the racing came with them in the form of trophies and books and big gold rings etched with checkered flags and the winning date. Judy died in 2015, leaving Bobby alone in the house with the race cars and posters and a view of a dogwood tree and the lake. He fishes. He stays busy. He feels, in the end, he’s been more blessed than cursed.

“We had so many good times. And bad, bad, bad—but good, too,” he concludes. He doesn’t want to end on a sad note, so as I prepare to leave, he reminds me to practice casting for the next time. “The thing with fishing is, even if you don’t catch anything, you still been fishing.”