In the early 1960s, three race car drivers relocated from Miami to Hueytown, Alabama, where they established themselves as the famous Alabama Gang. Red Farmer, Bobby Allison, and brother Donnie Allison routinely dominated the small racetracks across the Southeast. The trio eventually started winning on larger superspeedways and soon became bona fide racing stars. Despite not winning nearly as many races as his more famous older brother, Donnie Allison remains one of the greatest drivers ever, due to his versatility driving both Indy 500 open-wheel cars (no fenders, no roll cage, and no roof) and stock cars for NASCAR. Allison still brags that out of all the one-two finishes he and Bobby collected in the same race during their careers, he beat his older brother 80 percent of the time.
Behind the wheel, Donnie Allison was a force to be reckoned with. His friendship with driving legend A.J. Foyt led to Foyt providing him with a car for the 1970 Indianapolis 500, where Allison beat his boss to pick up a fourth-place finish his rookie year. The previous week, he had won the 600-mile NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the closest any driver has coming to winning both races. However, he’s probably best remembered for an end-of-race fight on the track with driver Cale Yarborough after the two wrecked on the last lap of the 1979 Daytona 500. It was the first NASCAR race to be televised nationally from start to finish. For many viewers across the country, fistfights and stock car racing were forever linked after that telecast.
Black & White: Do you still believe A.J. Foyt is the best race car driver ever?
|Donnie Allison his blue and gold Chevrolet sedan in the early 60′s. (click for larger version)
Donnie Allison: Yep. Everything he’s ever got in, he’s won in. He’s mechanically inclined enough, he knows what to do when he needs something done. There’s a lot of good race car drivers: Bobby [Allison], Richard [Petty], Dale Earnhardt, Mario Andretti. But if you take everything that A.J.’s run and put all those drivers in those cars, the [pecking order] would probably be A.J., then Bobby, then Mario.
Do you agree that bringing the Indy cars down South to race on smaller tracks in the late 1990s was a boost that open-wheel racing had been needing for a while?
Well, to an extent. The problem with the Indy cars down South is that all the racetracks are banked [in the turns]. The banked racetracks are not suited for Indy cars, because those things are rocketships. So for them to run how they need to run, they need to be run with a stiff suspension. And if you don’t run that stiff suspension like that, it bottoms out and it grinds the bottom [of the car] off. I feel like we have good racing when a driver has to back off the throttle. When a driver can run wide-open, the racing is not as good. Look at Daytona and Talladega.
Some of the older drivers say that racing is not what it was in the old days. Do you agree?
Well, to a certain extent. Racing is still just like it always was. It’s a group of drivers out there doing their best to win. The difference is the technology now is so much greater. They have so much more to their advantage to getting their cars better tuned in. I feel like in the old days, more of the drivers were in tune to their cars than they are today. I think the ego part of driving in 1978 and ’80 was not nearly what it is in 2009. We had some that were ego driven. But if we didn’t run good, we wanted to find out what was wrong with our car, or what was wrong with us, why we couldn’t do it.
Was there more camaraderie among the drivers in the old days?
Oh, yes. There were groups. There were certain drivers that were friends and certain drivers that weren’t. I guess that’s probably still maintained. I don’t know, I don’t go into the driver compounds anymore. We didn’t have those. We didn’t have the big buses and the areas roped off. We went out in the parking lots and a few racetracks had designated places for us to park our cars. When we would get together, it might be that night for dinner or for a drink afterward. We didn’t do like they do now. They might have a cordial conversation with one another right after the race. And we didn’t have that.
Did you know Janet Guthrie [the first woman to earn a spot in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, both in 1977]?
I knew her very well. I helped her. [Car owner] Ralph Moody asked me if I’d mind helping her. Guthrie never used the excuse of being a female. She never said, “They’re doing that to me because I’m a female.” But her car owner did, and it caused a little bit of rift, I think. It takes a gene [to compete successfully in racing] that I don’t think the women got. And I’m not a macho [type]. You watch [current Indy car sensation] Danica Patrick. She does an extremely good job until it gets to a lot of pressure there. And what I’ve watched and noticed about her is, when the pressure really gets there, for some reason or another, it appears that she gets out of there [abandons the confrontation]. Where, with men, they have a tendency to say, “Well, to hell with you, buddy. We’re gonna hang around here and see what happens.” That’s just my own personal thing. You take care of your equipment and you do the best you can to finish. When you need to be somewhere, you’re supposed to be there. It’s like that thing I’ve always said all my life, way back in the modified car days in Birmingham at the fairgrounds and at Dixie [Speedway] and all them places. I paid the same amount for my pit pass that [other drivers] did. So I own just as much of that place as they do.
I read a recent interview with Red Farmer where he said that he had an advantage because he was accustomed to running on flat tracks.
Well, I definitely believe that. That’s what I was saying about the cars handling better, about the chassis being better. If you could’ve watched Red Farmer run in south Florida where we were, it was amazing to watch him. He could run a car sideways faster than most people could straight.
Who had the worse temper in the old days, you or Bobby?
Bobby had the worse temper but I feel like he could control his more than I would mine. Me, when I lost my temper, they knew I lost it.
Do you miss driving?
Oh, yeah. Especially when I watch some of the things that go on now. I just don’t believe the guys get after it as hard as we used to. Look at the ball players. The football players don’t play as hard as they used to play, because they’re gonna get paid, regardless. The old guys used to get in there with broken fingers and broken noses, teeth knocked out, and what have you. Just look at the pictures of the old guys. It’s just like with us, it was a different era. I get a little bit aggravated sometimes when I hear some of the excuses the drivers today make. Because, to me, I’ve been there. I know. My motto is: “Don’t give me an excuse, give me a reason.” I can’t fix an excuse, but I can fix a reason. &
Donnie Allison will be inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega Superspeedway on April 23.