Donnie Allison leads the way

3/6/2014 - NASCAR

Amid the talk about how Kurt Busch might fare in this year's Indianapolis 500 as the first pure NASCAR driver to "do the double" in a long time, here's a not-so-trivial question for you: Who is the all-time maestro of the Indy-Charlotte combo in May?

Donnie Allison remains the most successful NASCAR driver ever in the 500 and retains the best combined record for both the 500 and 600.

He had a secret, which we'll reveal in a minute -- one neither Busch nor any other pure NASCAR driver ever at Indy, except for Bobby Allison, Donnie's older brother, has had.

Donnie in 1970 won the 600 on May 24 and then finished fourth at Indy on May 30, earning rookie of the year honors and recording what remains the highest finish ever by a NASCAR driver there. Yes, he had six days in between, where Busch will attempt to run both races on the same day, but Allison drove Indy with a badly burned heel on his throttle foot, suffered at Charlotte.

In 1971, Allison had the fastest car going into the 500 and might have won Indy if not for a race-morning technical rules change. As it was, he finished sixth at Indy on May 29 and then flew by private jet to Charlotte, where he finished second on May 30.

So first and fourth in '70, second and sixth in '71.

Tony Stewart, a regular in Indy cars before switching to NASCAR, had a career-best Indy 500 finish of fifth in 1997. The two years Stewart did the double, he finished ninth at Indy and fourth at Charlotte in 1999 and sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001.

Danica Patrick's fourth-place finish at Indy in 2005 and third in 2009 came before she moved to NASCAR.

So cumulatively, Donnie did better than anyone else. And he did it against undeniably the best Indy car competitors of the time, where Stewart and Patrick raced at Indy against questionable fields of talent after Indy car racing was gutted by the sanctioning split that began in 1996.

Unlike Stewart, John Andretti and Robby Gordon when they tried the double, Busch has never driven an Indy car in competition. Neither had Donnie, until 1970.

But once his first Indy 500 started, "If I had any surprises, it was maybe a little easier than I'd thought it was going to be," Donnie, now 74, said on the phone the other day.

His secret was a little-known and not long remembered form of racing that hit its pinnacle in the Gulf Coast states in the 1960s.

Primarily a stock car driver, "I ran about two and a half or three years of super modified, and I liked 'em," Donnie said.

Super modified.

You need to be a true aficionado of American motor racing to recognize that term, but if you do, the horrific sound and fury of those big-block engines belching the blue fire of nitromethane fuel mixtures, 490 horsepower pushing tiny 1,400-pound cars, is indelible in your memory.

There was nothing quite like them, and there never will be again. They were as near to unlimited cars as oval-track racing will ever get. "Supers" ran in various parts of the country, but the hotbed was deep in what is considered the cradle of NASCAR.

They were open-wheeled, with wings on top. They looked similar to today's winged sprint cars, but they ran on pavement and were lightning quick on half-mile tracks.

"An Indy car is about as close to a super modified car as you can get -- or it was at that time, anyway," Donnie said. "I knew I wasn't going to have any trouble driving an Indy car. The quick steering and the acceleration and everything they had -- I was pretty used to that with the super modified."

Bobby drove the supers some in the 1960s, but nothing like Donnie, who won everywhere he went: special shows at Memphis, Nashville and Birmingham, but specifically, "three nights a week, at Mobile, Pensacola and Laurel, Miss." All were paved half-mile ovals.

"Laurel was a pretty big, flat racetrack," Donnie said. "But the cars really went fast around there. At [high-banked] Mobile and Pensacola, they hauled butt."

Bobby recalls qualifying at more than 140 mph one night at Mobile. This on a half-mile.

In NASCAR, Donnie became friends with Ford teammate A.J. Foyt.

"I used to say to him, 'When are you gonna let me drive one of your Indy cars?'" Donnie recalled. "He said, 'You don't want to drive an Indy car. You're a stock car driver. You're a taxi driver.' That's what he called me, 'taxi driver.'"

That was what the Indy car supremacists called NASCAR drivers in those days. Some still do.

Taxi driver, hell.

In the deepest South, in cars NASCAR wouldn't even think about sanctioning because they would have been illegal every which way, Donnie Allison of Hueytown, Ala., had learned the art of open-wheel racing.

"So in 1970 at Daytona in February, I said, 'A.J., why don't you let me drive one of your Indy cars?' He said, 'You really want to drive one?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to drive one.' He said, 'I'll call you,'" Donnie recalled. "Well, I didn't figure I'd ever get a call, but in about two weeks, he called."

They went to Indy to test. Donnie didn't want to run too fast, lest Indy officials order him to skip his rookie test in May, so he ran hard only one straightaway and one set of corners at a time. Foyt saw enough to invite him to test at Phoenix, where Donnie had never run but was just a bigger version of the flat ovals at Birmingham and Laurel.

Foyt bet Goodyear engineers $500 that Donnie couldn't crack 30 seconds on the one-mile track. First hot lap, Foyt lost the bet as Donnie turned a 29.80, and Donnie was bound for Indy.

The fourth-place finish, after a dogfight with Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser, who both finished behind Donnie, gained so much respect among the open-wheel purists that "A.J. Watson, Bobby Unser's crew chief, came back to my garage after the race and congratulated me, told me I was the only stock car driver he ever saw who could drive one of those things," Donnie said.

Foyt invited Donnie back, and "in '71, I actually had a better car than I did in '70," Donnie recalled. "But a rules thing happened. Carburetion Day, I was as fast as anybody on the racetrack. Anybody, including Al Unser in the Johnny Lightning car that was winning all the races [including the Indy 500s of '70 and '71].

"Then on race morning, we went through tech and my rear wing was too high. They didn't have a gauge before race morning, but A.J.'s car was wrong, a lot of them were wrong.

"They made me put the wing down and it made my car too loose, and I couldn't run like I ran on Carburetion Day."

Bobby Allison was fast enough in Indy cars in testing that Roger Penske asked him to drive in the 500 in 1973 and '75.

Bobby's super-modified background "absolutely" made a difference, he said in a phone interview. But Bobby fell out of both races with engine failures.

And how might Busch do at Indy, without the Allisons' super-modified secret?

"Oh, I definitely think Kurt Busch will [do fine]," Donnie said. "Yes, the type of driver he is. He's always been aggressive. ... Kurt may not be as aggressive now as when he came into the sport, but I think that helps you in Indy cars. You have to be patiently aggressive, if that makes any sense. ... You gotta go when [the situation] gives it to you. Yessir. That's it."

Donnie Allison knew how to do that -- better than any other NASCAR driver, before or since, and against the toughest competition open-wheel racing on ovals ever offered. He remains the Indy-Charlotte maestro.