Throughout his career, Bobby Allison has always been known as a “racer’s racer.” Even at the height of his stardom as a NASCAR stock car driver, Allison still competed at the local short tracks throughout the United States so that he kept in touch with “his people” – the grassroots race fans who idolized the leader of the “Alabama Gang.”
From the “grassroots,” Allison made it to the “hallowed grounds” by racing in the Indianapolis 500 in 1973 and 1975 for famed team owner Roger Penske. And while his NASCAR career was legendary, earning him a place in the second induction class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame this week, his time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not include similar success.
“My Indy deal was not really very good,” Allison said. “Donnie’s was great, and mine was just the opposite. The first time there I blew up on the pace lap. That was a heartbreak, especially after devoting a month to it and missing three NASCAR races to get the preparation done. Two years later, Roger Penske begged me to go on back, and I gave it another try. I actually led the 23rd lap in 1975, but then the car had all kinds of problems. It got a lap down from a bad fuel leak and I was getting my lap back at halfway, and then the engine blew up again.”
Allison’s brother, Donnie, preceded Bobby’s appearance in the Indianapolis 500. Donnie Allison finished fourth and was named Rookie of the Year at Indy in 1970. He finished sixth in 1971.
“Donnie went up there and did well, and I was proud of him,” Bobby said. “At the time, Indy-car racing was different from so many standpoints. There were several guys that wanted to run very limited schedules, and I wanted to run everywhere. There were guys who were used to getting paid a lot of money just to be there and at that time I wasn’t getting paid money just to show up. Roger Penske insisted that I run that test. At the time, I was driving for my own team in NASCAR.”
While both drivers battled each other on a weekly basis in stock cars, the chance to run in the Indianapolis 500 offered both Allisons financial opportunity.
“It was strictly a financial situation on my part,” Allison said. “I was racing NASCAR for purse money, and even though I raced for some first-class teams, I never got a salary. Roger offered me a fee to go there. I responded to the guarantee of showing up money. I went ahead and sacrificed three NASCAR races and spent the month there.
“I was really fast in the car. I went to a test and was really fast in the test at Ontario. Mark Donohue and Peter Revson were both there, and I ran a half mile per hour of their best speed and I only ran 10 laps. Roger leaned on me to go to Indy, so I went ahead and did that. That cost me the three NASCAR races that I wanted to run. And the engine blew up on the pace lap in 1973.”
In 1973, Penske already had earned the first of his record 15 Indy 500 victories as a team owner when Donohue won the 1972 500 Mile Race. Allison had tremendous respect and admiration for Penske, and that is why he decided to try the high-speed IndyCars.
“I was really impressed with that,” Allison said. “I was impressed with Roger Penske from day one. I met him way back, and I admired how what he was doing and how he had come up to driving the car on the road course stuff some but he also had a few NASCAR starts and decided he could be a way better car owner and team operator than a driver. Mark Donohue was so good behind the wheel, and they were personal friends. I admired both of them, and off the racetrack Mark was a friendly guy, and I talked to them some and visited with them off the track. At the track, Mark didn’t talk to anybody but Roger.
“In the Indy cars, all the garages were separate with doors on them, and Mark always went in his and closed the door and nobody was allowed in. But I admired the guy any way to such a degree. He was the No. 1 guy on the team, and I was the No. 3 guy on the team. I was at least pleased to get an opportunity to give it a try and get paid for it.”
Allison admitted it may have been a blessing that his engine blew up on the pace lap because the 1973 Indy 500 was one of the darkest in its 100-year history. Two race drivers and a pit crew member would be killed that May, and it affected Allison’s wife, Judy.
“Judy and I knew Swede Savage personally,” Allison said of the driver who would be fatally injured in the race in 1973. “He had been down here driving for Ralph Moody, and we were very fond of him. As we were coming into the track, Art Pollard was killed, and he was one of the really good Indy drivers that I was friendly with.
“Roger wanted me back in 1974. I had signed a contract with Roger for 1973 and 1974, and when Judy told Roger after the race was over in 1973 and we were all back in the garage with blown-up engines and tragedy going on outside, Judy told Roger she didn’t want to ever go back there again. He took the contract out and tore it in two.”
Allison thought he had participated in his final Indianapolis 500 without ever turning a lap in the race itself. But two years later, he would not only be back in the starting lineup, but would actually have his car at the front of the field.
“In 1975, I was driving the Matador for him in NASCAR,” Allison said. “We were doing good, and it was a good deal for me because the car ran good enough and would last long enough that it had a lot of good finishes. Roger gave me good driver pay for that period of time, so that was working for me. Mike Hiss had become his Indy-car driver, and they were running a test at Michigan the day after the North Wilkesboro race. Roger called and asked me to run a test for him, and I didn’t have to go fast because Mike Hiss had something else to do. I talked to Judy and she agreed it would be OK for me to run the test.
“I flew into Michigan that Monday and went 14 miles an hour faster than Mike Hiss in the same car.
“While I was running the test Roger got in his jet and flew from Pennsylvania to Michigan to watch me run some laps in it and insisted I get back in the Indy car. That was October of 1974. I agreed to do some races in 1975. I led a lap at Indy and the engine blew, I led a lap at Pocono and the engine blew and I led a lap at Michigan and the engine blew. I wasn’t pursuing an Indy-car career so it was a good excuse to take off.”
Even though the legendary Allison had a less than stellar career in the Indy 500, he has incredible respect for the race and its history.
“It was the biggest and the longest-running major event around the world,” Allison said. “It was the biggest and most world famous race so that in itself really had significance to it. The purse was incredibly higher than a NASCAR purse. If you did good at Indy, you probably didn’t have to work the rest of the year. Those things were attractive to me. And every time I got in an Indy car, I went really, really fast and felt comfortable with the car. I was pleased with that. I went there and gave it my best effort.
“That is 100 years old this year, I think that is really, really neat, and I wish the timing was different. I wish the Hall of Fame stuff was a different week because I would go there.”
Today, Allison lives in Mooresville, N.C., and while his racing career was cut short when he suffered serious injuries in a crash at Pocono during a NASCAR race in 1988, he remains a man of tremendous will and honor with a strong dose of humility.
“Right now I’m doing a little personal appearances and trying to pay bills,” Allison said. “I’ll speak or sign autographs. I’ve done a little bit of straight speaking and autograph sessions, appearing at different functions. We were at the opening of a farm equipment dealer in Georgia and spent a day down there doing that.”
On May 23, Allison was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“I was so honored by that,” Allison said. “NASCAR is where I chose to put my best effort and did that for many, many years. I did some neat things with NASCAR – built cars and built chassis and even built engines for a while and won races. I’m really honored getting in there with so few in front of me.”