A year ago today, Bobby Allison was a young man of 50. He had just out-run his son in winning the Daytona 500, the richest and most treasured prize in stock car racing. He was the oldest driver to win a Winston Cup race, but he wore the smile of a younger man, a completely satisfied man.
Even the relationship between Bobby and his son, Davey, 27, was more that of brothers than father and son.
But today, Bobby Allison is an old man of 51.
Instead of being here as defending champion of the Daytona 500 against the world’s greatest stock car drivers, he is at home in Hueytown, Ala., walking with crutches and preparing to watch the race on television.
His halting speech, fuzzy vision and tentative movements, make him more like Davey’s grandfather than his father.
The transformation occurred in a grinding clash of metal against metal, one 3,500-pound vehicle smashing into the driver’s side of another at 145 m.p.h. last June 19 at Pocono Raceway at Long Pond, Pa.
It happened on the first lap of the Miller 500, a race sponsorsed, coincidentally, by Allison’s team sponsor.
One of Allison’s tires was going flat and he was hurrying back to the pits for a new one. The pack was tight, because the cars had not yet begun to string out.
As the field headed for the tunnel turn on Pocono’s tri-oval, Allison moved low on the race track, but the deflating tire upset the car’s balance and it began to turn sideways and slide back up the track.
Jocko Maggiacomo, a part-time Winston Cup driver from Poughkeepsie, N. Y., saw the gold car sideways directly in front of him and there was nothing he could do. The impact caved in the side of Allison’s Buick and destroyed Maggiacomo’s family-owned Chevrolet.
The race was barely 30 seconds along.
Allison spent 108 days in hospitals in Allentown, Pa., and Birmingham, Ala., with severe head injuries and a crushed left leg before he was allowed to return home in a wheelchair.
Maggiacomo, 41, the forgotten man in the accident, had a broken ankle, fractured ribs and a 26-stitch gash in his chin. He also suffered severe trauma and has all but dropped out of Winston Cup racing.
Allison’s recovery has been both remarkable for the way he has fought back from an early coma and sad because he is so unlike the Bobby Allison of old.
A month ago, Allison said he was planning to be here to watch the 500, but the constant pain in his left hip forced him to return to the Lehigh Valley Hospital Center at Allentown for additional surgery.
“They took the rods out (of his leg) and I can really feel the improvement,” he said from the hospital. “I just wish my head would improve as quickly. If that happened, I would be in great shape. But I’m still making improvement.”
While at Allentown, doctors also removed a metal shunt in his head but later replaced it with a plastic one during a four-hour operation. The shunt drains fluid buildup inside his skull.
“I was dizzy and really struggled with nausea after they took the shunt out the first time,” he said slowly. “It was obvious that I still needed one. Since then, I retain things better mentally, but it did set me back a few steps.
“The shunt may have to be permanent but they tell me that football players and sky divers have shunts and it poses no problem for them. So we will have to see. I’m putting in time and feeling better because I can see some progress. I have a long way to go, but we are working real hard.”
Allison’s memory plays tricks on him.
He has no recollection of his dramatic race with Davey in last year’s Daytona 500, yet he recalls, in detail, winning the annual Daytona 500 fishing tournament held earlier the same week on Lake Lloyd, in the track’s infield.
“I’ve read accounts of the race and it reads just like fiction to me,” he said. “And I’ve watched it on TV reruns and I can’t recognize the gold No. 12 car. The last car I can recall driving was red and white and it was No. 22.”
That was in 1987.
He can’t seem to accept the fact that he won last year and would be the defending champion if he were here. When doctors decided he should not make the trip, his first reaction was that he would miss the fishing tournament.
“I would really like to be in Daytona,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I missed a race there (it was 1964), but I’m really going to miss the fishing tournament in the infield. I guess the fish are going to get off easy this week.”
Bobby was right. Dale Earnhardt was the only driver to catch a fish, a one-pound six-ounce bass that won him a bass boat with a depth finder, a trolling motor and a trailer.
“I look on this as a good sign,” Earnhardt said. “Last year Bobby Allison won the fishing tournament and the 500. I plan to do the same thing.”
Only once before has a Daytona 500 not had a defending champion. Richard Petty won in 1964 as a Plymouth factory driver, but did not run in 1965 because Chrysler pulled its cars out of the race in a dispute with NASCAR over the hemi engine. Petty came back in 1966 and won again.
Allison also has no recollection of the Pocono accident, even after returning to the scene and being driven around the 2.5-mile track by his wife Judy. “We even stopped right where I got hit, but I didn’t remember a thing,” he said. “But I remember the driver’s meeting before the race. I remember making some smart remark about Darrell Waltrip and having Mike (Darrell’s younger brother) raise his hand and saying that he wasn’t the Waltrip I was talking about, that he was his brother.”
Curiously, Allison also remembers the trip to Australia he took in February of 1988 to help introduce NASCAR-type stock car racing Down Under.
“It was funny how I suddenly remembered going there,” he said. “Someone was talking about koala bears and kangaroos and it clicked something in my head and it all came back, driving at Calder Park in the Thunderdome.
“That’s why the doctors decided to have me go back to Pocono and see if my mind would click like that again. But nothing happened.”
Another curious twist is that he is fuzzy about many of his 84 Winston Cup victories and doesn’t remember any 1988 race, yet recalls the entire 1983 season, during which he won his only series championship.
Even though he is not here, Allison visited several racing sites late in the 1988 season, including Atlanta, Phoenix and Charlotte, plus a Miller Motorsports Expo in King of Prussia, Pa., last month where he signed autographs and visited with fans.
“The doctors tell me that I’m way ahead of schedule, but it’s going way too slow for me,” he said. “I’m impatient, and I’m used to coming back from bad wrecks a lot quicker than this.”
Allison had been in a number of frightening accidents before Pocono and each time he was back sooner than anyone had expected.
The worst was a short-track crash into a cement wall in 1976 at Elko, Minn., where he broke 11 bones and doctors said he might never drive again. He was out of the hospital in four days and started a Winston Cup race the next Sunday at Nashville, although he needed relief from Neil Bonnett.
He once flipped 16 times at Rockingham, N. C., and still made the next race. His most spectacular accident occured two years ago at Talladega, Ala., where his car became airborne and tore out more than 100 feet of fencing and nine steel posts before spinning to a stop in mid-track. Bobby walked away from that one with no more than a few bruises.
“Bobby is probably the toughest cat we have and if anybody can come back after a hit like he took, it would be Bobby,” said Petty, Allison’s longtime competitor.
Allison still talks as if he might return to racing, but not with the same confidence he had when the ’88 season ended. “Back last fall, I had hoped that I would be back this year, but now it’s obvious that I’m a long way away,” he said. “I don’t have a target date now. I’m just struggling to improve as much as I can each day.”
Before his most recent surgery, Allison had been working five days a week in the physical therapy room of the Birmingham Police Academy, working on weight equipment and riding a stationary bicycle.
“I’ve got to keep thinking I might be back, but I’ll never get in a car unless I’m absolutely sure that I’m in good condition,” he said. “Racing is all I’ve known all my life, so I figure if I can’t drive again, I’ll probably be around racing in some way or the other.
“I have to say, though, that if I don’t get back, I’ve had a tremendous career. If I’d gotten killed right there (at Pocono), my racing career would have been worth it.”
One unfortunate side effect of Allison’s condition has been the impact on his son. Everywhere Davey goes, he is besieged with questions about his father. From a once outgoing, well-spoken young man, Davey has become almost a recluse.
“The only place I can get away is in my race car,” Davey said. “I know everyone means well and are concerned about Dad, but it gets so I lose all my concentration.
“I no more come in off the track, climb out of the car, than I’m surrounded by people firing questions at me. Sometimes I lose a whole practice session just answering questions and talking about Dad. I worry enough about him myself without the added burden of everyone else.
“When he was up at Allentown, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything but think about him--except when I got in my race car. Once I got myself strapped in, I shut out everything but driving. I found I was staying in the car longer and longer, just sitting there. It was the only solution I had to keeping my senses.”
Davey, who was in the Pocono race when Bobby crashed, won the Miller 400 at Richmond, Va., last September and dedicated it to his father. “I was on the pole and what really inspired me was hearing my Dad give the ‘Start your engine!’ command from the hospital in Birmingham over a special phone hookup.”
A younger brother, Clifford, is also starting a racing career.
“Clifford has been trying to keep me doing things in the shop,” Bobby said. “He says its therapy for me, but I think maybe he’s really looking for some help with his car. But that’s fine. The more I recover, the more likely I am to give some time to Clifford and Davey’s career, at least with some conversation and counsel.”
Clifford raced for the first time at Daytona in last Sunday’s Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) 200, but crashed on Lap 38 when he spun coming out of the fourth turn and hit the inside retaining wall. He was not injured.
Now Bobby will turn his attention to Davey and today’s race.
“Obviously, I’m pulling real hard for Davey,” his father said. “If it weren’t for me, he would have won last year, so I hope this year it’s his turn. I’m also going to be watching Mike Alexander. He’s driving for the Stavola brothers team I won with last year. Davey is my top choice, but Alexander is a close second.”