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A Down-to-Earth Guy and His High Life : In the Long Run, Bobby Allison Prefers His Saturday Nights Out at the Short Tracks

Times Staff Writer

Bobby Allison slipped rump first out the window of the modified Firebird and eased himself to the ground. He looked around at the small crowd that surrounded him, broke into an easy smile, and said, “I like it.”

The 47-year-old from Hueytown, Ala., seemed more like a visiting uncle taking his nephew’s jalopy for a spin around the block than a venerable NASCAR racing champion checking out a car two hours before racing it 150 times around a third-of-a-mile track.

But to onlookers at the Miller High Life 150 at Saugus Speedway Saturday night, Allison was similar to a seldom-seen, beloved relative. He traded affectionate elbow jabs with fellow drivers, winked at women and exuded the comfortable air of someone glad to be home.

It didn’t matter that Allison is at home on any track, large or small. The full house at Saugus welcomed him warmly with a rush of applause as he nosed onto the track for a qualifying run and with gasps of glee when he turned in the fourth-fastest qualifying time.

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Allison also finished fourth in the race, pretty good for a driver new to the track.

Saugus Speedway, in addition to being small, has no banks on its turns--so it’s put the pedal to the metal, baby, and hang one long left turn.

Allison’s most important race of the weekend, however, was a day away.

Sunday at 11 a.m.--only 11 hours after crossing the finish line at Saugus--Allison sat in his Buick, helmet strapped on, revving for the green flag at the NASCAR Budweiser 400 at the Riverside International Raceway.

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Allison finished third, winning $15,900.

Traveling to Riverside, and racing the next morning, would tax the stamina of the most ambitious rookie racer. But the veteran said he didn’t think he would need to take 150 right turns around the hotel room to unwind. “I’ll be at Van Nuys Airport an hour after the race, fly to Riverside and go straight to the hotel,” said Allison, who pilots his own plane. “When I put my head on a pillow, I go right to sleep.

“But first, I’ll have a cold Miller.”

A star in a sport that places a premium on speed, is full of curves and features an occasional slider, Allison isn’t afraid to make a pitch.

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A cynic would say he was at Saugus only because Miller Brewing Co., Allison’s sponsor since 1982, sponsored the race. The public address announcer certainly gave the audience its fill of the product. At every pause in the racing, a crackling voice suggested: “It appears once again to be Miller time, folks.”

Allison is a walking, weathered billboard for the beer company. His red racing suit and hat have the Miller logo printed across the front in huge letters. This good ol’ boy stands by--and for--his sponsor.

At the 75-lap intermission, for instance, Allison’s car was besieged by an adoring crowd. He slid out the window, grinned and said, “I sure could use a cold Miller.”

But if Allison seems at times the prisoner of a product, he is quick to point out that for him and the racing industry, there were once much leaner times. He raced for 15 years before attracting a sponsor. The money only started rolling in when companies other than auto parts firms saw the value of sponsoring racers.

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Thirty years ago, when a 17-year-old sped around a Hialeah, Fla., oval under the name “Bob Sunderman,” racing was far from a meal ticket. In fact, Allison used the alias to keep out of trouble with his parents--who didn’t want Bobby to become just another oval teen.

Allison’s career really took off in 1971 when the 30-race Winston Cup Grand National series was born. He captured 10 Winston Cup races in each of the first two years of the series and has won more than $100,000 every year since, except 1977 when he won $87,000. Allison also took the Winston Cup national championship in 1983, a year he won over $1 million.

Allison has maintained a down-home perspective throughout.

“Let me tell you about winning,” he drawled. “Winning a race is like fishing. If I go fishing and don’t catch a fish, I’ve still been fishing--it’s been worthwhile. But if I catch a big fish--now that’s fishing.”

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Most remarkable, however, is Allison’s stamina. He competed in 92 races in 1984, two thirds of them at small tracks similar to Saugus Speedway. And only a dozen of them were sponsored by Miller.

In one weekend last year, he completed 798 of a possible 800 laps in three races within 24 hours. There were 1,200 miles of travel between the three, all of which he piloted in his Piper Aerostar.

“Travel is my pastime,” Allison said. “I’ve seen every corner of this country, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it all again.

“I started racing small tracks in the early ‘70s to drum up support for the Winston Cup series. Now there’s been a flip-flop. Small tracks need the support, and a night like tonight (at Saugus) is healthy for a track.”

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Lots of racing also keeps Allison healthy.

“Being here is better than joining the other drivers at the hotel, having a rowdy time,” he said. “Races at small tracks keep me fit. I stay sharp at places like Saugus.

“I concentrate best at a place that’s a struggle to adapt to and where there’s a good crowd. I relate this to similar tracks I’ve raced on. I consider that an asset--my ability to adapt quickly.”

And for relaxation, Allison gets behind the wheel of another high-performance machine: his airplane.

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“Flying calms me because there is no competition, no extreme physical effort, rarely any instantaneous decision making,” he said. “It’s all preparation and anticipation.

“All I need to be happy are racing, flying and my family.”

And Miller.


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