Donnie Allison spins good tales
Donnie Allison's NASCAR legacy centers on The Fight; he and big brother Bobby and anvil-fisted Cale Yarborough throwing helmets and haymakers and scrapping like junkyard dogs in Turn 3 at Daytona International Speedway in February 1979.
It was reality TV before there ever was such a thing, snowed-in families up and down the East Coast captivated by the good ol' boys makin' noise. It was a seminal moment that impacted NASCAR forever. Allison can't hardly go anywhere even today without being asked about it.
But The Fight, for all its conflict and drama and passion and everything else that makes sports captivating, is merely a fraction of Allison's story. I realize that every time I chat with him.
I love to chat with Donnie. I mostly listen. (What am I possibly going to tell him that he hasn't already heard anyway?) He's a sort of grandfather figure to me. He looks out for me, always says hello and imparts wisdom about whatever track we inhabit at that moment. Producers are always hustling me off to this engagement or that live shot. And I'm always late. But I still stop to listen to Donnie. It drives my coworkers crazy.
When we part ways Donnie almost always tells me to "keep giving 'em hell." That's as weird as it is awesome. It's Donnie Allison saying that.
I called him recently to chat. I was waiting for my daughter's school day to end, and I wanted to hear some stories about how it used to be. Those stories are always so rich, because those guys aren't a damn bit concerned with politics or posturing. They just tell it like it was. On this day I asked him about running fourth at Indy and the most meaningful moment of his NASCAR career.
The Indianapolis 500; May 30, 1970
Allison was seated on a bench inside the garage area at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, changing out of his off-white racing suit and into the clothes he would wear home from one of the most fulfilling days of his life. On an adjacent bench sat A.J. Foyt, also changing clothes. There was a knock at the door.
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Allison had just outdueled open-wheel legends Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser to finish fourth in the Indianapolis 500. That meant he had earned rookie of the year honors in the most famous race on Earth. Allison felt confident he'd shown the world -- and more importantly Foyt -- that he was more than just an old taxicab driver, as Foyt liked to refer to him.
Foyt was Allison's racing hero; the toughest, most versatile driver of all time as far as Allison was concerned. The very best. Allison felt that way for reasons that had nothing to do with driving talent. Allison was enthralled by Foyt's ability to build a race car from the ground up: chassis, body, suspension and engine. All of it. And then, once he built a better car than you did, he'd hop in and drive it better than you did, too. The only other driver Allison ever saw that could do it that way was his own brother, Bobby.
Donnie used to wear Foyt out during Speedweeks at Daytona about driving one of Foyt's open-wheel cars in the Indianapolis 500. Foyt would also respond the same way: "Oh, man, come on. You can't drive no Indy car. You're a taxicab driver." For two years this went on every time the two crossed paths. Then in 1970 Allison made another run at him.
"He said, 'You're serious about this aren't you?'" Allison said. "I said, 'Well hell yes I'm serious. I've been telling you that for two years, now.' And he said, 'I'll call you.' Well, he'd said that before. I didn't think he'd ever do that."
He did. Foyt called and told Allison to come to Houston.
"And the way he always did things, he never committed to anything," Allison said. "He never said, 'Come on out here and we'll get a car and run it.' He just said come on out here. So I went to Houston."
When Allison arrived at Foyt's shop in Houston, Foyt greeted him and took him straight to the back. A car sat there, up on a rack.
"He said, 'That's your Indy car, right there. You and dad get it down and put it together and you can run it,'" Allison said. "So we did."
That car was a 1968 Dan Gurney Eagle. It would ultimately outrun its owner. Impressing Foyt was the stuff of dreams for Allison. That was his thought process as the two changed clothes that day.
Just outside the door from where they sat was a burly man named Chester Honeycutt. Honeycutt was one of Allison's pit crewmen and de facto bodyguard in NASCAR, and Foyt told him to guard the door while the two drivers changed clothes. You didn't mess with Chester. If you messed with Chester, Chester would mess with the arrangement of your facial features.
Foyt was ticked. He'd had an issue late in the race that spoiled his opportunity to win -- or at least to run second to the race's dominator, Al Unser. No one was to bother him or Allison. But then came the knock. It was A.J. Watson, Bobby Unser's crew chief.
Foyt said to let him in. Watson acknowledged Foyt's disappointing finish, but said he wanted a word with Allison.
"He walked over to me, and I'm sitting down on this bench, and he said, 'I want to shake your hand and congratulate you,'" Allison recalled. "'You're the only stock car driver I've ever seen that I felt could drive one of these things.' That's a compliment right there, coming from one of them people. That really stuck with me. I've never told people about that."
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That compliment resonated deeply with Allison. Watson didn't have to say a word. He could easily have gone on about his business rather than take a moment to openly appreciate what Allison did that day, especially right after the race ended.
"That's no BS, there," Allison said. "That's a good compliment, I think. That means I showed them something."
Six days before that, driving Banjo Matthews' No. 27 Sunny King Ford, Allison won the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway by two laps over Yarborough. It was the second win of his NASCAR career, which included 10 total victories.
The most memorable win? The seventh one, also at Charlotte.
The SOB who can't drive -- remember me?
In the years following the Indy run, Allison aligned himself in NASCAR with brother-in-law car owners Mike DiProspero and Bill Gardner, who had formed a team called DiGard Motorsports. Allison said the relationship was hectic.
Following the 1975 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, for which he'd qualified on the pole and ultimately finished fifth, Allison was summoned to Gardner's yacht for a meeting. The yacht was parked in the marina beside what is now the Chart House restaurant.
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"If I live to be 200, I'll never forget that day," Allison said.
He was told he was used-up, done, couldn't win anymore. And then he was fired.
DiGard was founded with Allison's cars, truck and equipment. I wondered if he felt used.
"Ha! Hell. Slightly," Allison scoffed.
Allison walked off that boat with no idea what was next. He returned to Alabama with $2,300 in a savings account and little else. He had no home and four children to send to Catholic school. He did, though, have DiGard company stock, for which, he said, Gardner's attorney, Pete Fender, phoned one day and offered $250.
His biggest issue was he had no ride. That changed when he caught on with Hoss Ellington, for whom he drove a handful of races at the end of 1975 and again in 1976. And that, then, set up what he calls the most outstanding moment of his career.
It was Oct. 10, 1976, and Allison was driving Ellington's No. 1 Chevrolet in the National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Again, Gardner -- who now had hotshot shoe Darrell Waltrip in his car -- had told him the previous year that he couldn't drive anymore.
He won Charlotte, outrunning Yarborough and big brother Bobby.
"I knew better than that," Allison said of Gardner's proclamation. "So when I got the opportunity to drive Hoss' car, it was straight back up from that point on. And when I won that race, it was so satisfying to me, because, even though I didn't run my mouth to people that I knew I could still drive, I knew I could still drive.
"And in fact, after the race, I walked right over to Bill Gardner and punched him in the chest and said, 'I'm the son of a bitch that couldn't drive. Remember me?'"
I laughed when Donnie told that story.
Almost 40 years have passed, and he still doesn't think kindly of Gardner. He understands now that he got himself into the situation by being too trustworthy. He didn't see the need for any contracts. He had a handshake. It made for a very expensive, taxing lesson.
"[Gardner] didn't really say a whole lot of anything -- there was nothing he could say," Allison continued. "We never had any real conversations since. I personally don't have any use for people that try to gain by that means. And my own brother went to drive for him afterwards!
"The only thing I told Bobby was, 'You watch Bill Gardner, now, or you're gonna get screwed.' He said, 'No, no, no, no. I got it all under control.' Well, when Bobby Allison left there he had to buy every stitch of apparel, clothing. Talk to Darrell Waltrip, he'll tell you the same thing."
(For the record, I asked DW. He had some choice words, too. Then he gave me some other names to call.)
I wondered who, among today's driving corps, could've run with the old dogs. Is anybody really old-school tough anymore?
"Tony Stewart," Allison said immediately.
Why him? Allison noted Stewart's ability to build a race car. And his willingness to bust your mouth if you cross him. And because he'll drive anything, anytime, anywhere, even if people are critical. And what of those who are critical of Stewart running sprint cars?
"That's bulls---," Allison said. "He's a damn race car driver. The only drawback to the whole thing is that so many people are depending on him now. It ain't like 10 years ago when he could go hook up his stuff and go run anything he wanted to go run."
Allison said people ask him often about the culture change among the drivers. He cited how nice Dale Earnhardt Jr. always is to others, even if they plumb run him over.
"People ask me about Dale Jr., and if he's changed around this year. I say, 'No, he's not changed,'" Allison said. "He's the same exact person he always was. He just wants to race. And the question I have is competitiveness.
"A competitive person is not going to get out of a car and pat an enemy on the back. And what I mean by that, Dale, doesn't make any difference if somebody runs over him or around him or through him, he always has nice things to say. That ain't getting it, man."
I noted that Earnhardt isn't the only driver to do that.
"Maybe it changed when NASCAR put the stricter rules on drivers getting even with drivers," Allison said. "Look, I'm not condoning crashing a guy. But there's times in your racing life when that's the only alternative.
"And that's the difference between now and my day. When I had a problem with a guy -- including my own brother! -- I walked over and said to him, 'Look here, man. This happened and this happened,' and both men understand what happened. And then I say, 'By God don't let it happen again.' If I went and talked to somebody else, naturally, I thought it was their fault."
And that, then, led us back to the story about Chester Honeycutt ...
"Now I will say, I had Chester with me always," Allison said. "If somebody would have grabbed me and threw me back like that guy did Joey Logano, they'd have got their neck broke."
Yep. There's the difference between then and now. Right there.
I told you the stories were rich.
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