BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Tucked away in the woods, just inside the city limits that separate Leeds, Alabama, from the booming city of Birmingham, is one of the most beautiful road courses in the South, if not the entire United States.
This weekend, the Barber Motorsports Park will be staging the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama NTT IndyCar Series race for the 10th time.
Up the road a piece, is where the legendary Auburn and National Basketball Association great Charles Barkley grew up.
Barkley put Leeds on the map when he was one of the top high school basketball players in the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s. On Saturday night, the greatest player in Auburn history will be pulling for his Tigers as the basketball team made it to the NCAA “Final Four” for the first time in school history.
Times have changed in these parts. In a state known for college football and NASCAR, it’s college basketball and IndyCar racing that will be the main attraction in this state that takes pride in its Southern culture.
Nearly 50 years ago, it was much different.
There were stock car tracks all over the state of Alabama and the most famous of all stock car racers were known as “The Alabama Gang.”
It consisted of Red Farmer, a local stock car hero who continued to race well into his 80s. He’s still a legend at the disputed age of 91. Nobody knows for sure, how old Farmer is, but the International Motorsports Hall of Fame lists his birth year as 1928.
As late at 2015, Farmer still competed regularly in late model stock car racing at Talladega Short Track – a one-third mile dirt “Bull Ring” in Eastaboga, Alabama located across the street from Talladega Superspeedway.
But it was Bobby Allison and his younger brother Donnie (pictured above), along with Hueytown, Alabama neighbor and NASCAR protégé Neil Bonnett that made “The Alabama Gang” something to fear.
When these drivers weren’t winning the Daytona 500 or the Southern 500 or the Talladega 500 or any of the other big-time races on the NASCAR schedule in the 1960s, ‘70s and ’80s, they were racing Late Model stock cars at Birmingham International Raceway and other tracks in the South and around the United States.
So as the NTT IndyCar Series takes over Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham for the 10thHonda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, let’s look back to when “The Alabama Gang” took on the Indianapolis 500.
In the days before specialization, it was not uncommon to see race drivers compete in races, no matter what series the races were part of. IndyCar drivers such as AJ Foyt were semi-regulars in NASCAR Grand National, winning races against the big-name drivers of the time such as Fred Lorenzen, Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts and David Pearson. Cale Yarborough competed in the same Indianapolis 500 in 1966 that Formula One World Champion Graham Hill won, and the great Jackie Stewart was Indy 500 “Rookie of the Year.”
Jim Clark, the legendary Formula One World Champion, drove a NASCAR race at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina in 1967. That’s the same year Mario Andretti won the Daytona 500.
Donnie Allison had struck up a friendship with AJ Foyt from those days when Foyt competed in NASCAR. Foyt was one of the few IndyCar drivers the NASCAR gang considered one of their own, despite the fact Foyt used to call the NASCAR guys “Taxi Cab Drivers.”
“Every time I saw AJ, I would ask, ‘When are you going to let me drive one of your Indy cars?’” Allison told NBC Sports.com. “He said, ‘You don’t want to drive an Indy car; you’re a taxi driver.’
“I was at Daytona in 1970 and I asked him again. He told me to come to Houston to see what we could put together. I went to the shop and AJ got together with his father, Tony, and we went into the back and showed me the car I was going to run, and it was a 1968 Eagle. It wasn’t even a Coyote; it was a two-year-old Eagle.
“AJ’s father and I put the car together and we went to a test at Phoenix. He asked me to take a ride in the car. I got in it and went out there and on the third lap he was motioning me on the straightaway to come in.
“AJ was mad at me and said, I just cost him $500. I asked how I did that? He had bet the Goodyear Tire guys I wouldn’t break 29 seconds (a lap). My second lap was a 28.50.
“It was a constant thing like that with Foyt. He was a tremendous race driver and a very good friend.”
Allison enjoyed his time in an Indy car and even told Foyt in 1971 that he would run the full United States Auto Club (USAC) IndyCar “National Trail” so that Foyt could concentrate on the “Big Four” races in IndyCar at that time.
“You’d leave stock cars?” Foyt asked Allison, who told him, “Only to drive your car for the IndyCar championship in USAC.’
“I enjoyed the Indy cars,” Allison told NBC Sports.com. “I had a lot of experience in Super-modifieds and the Indy cars were like a glorified Supermodified.
“I had two rough months of May at Indianapolis, but I had two really good race days.”
Allison started 20thin the 1970 Indianapolis 500 and finished fourth, winning the Stark and Wetzel “Rookie of the Year Award.” The following day, he returned to Charlotte and won the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I spent plenty of time in airplanes that year flying between Charlotte and Indianapolis, back and forth,” Donnie recalled. “I was so busy those days flying back and forth every day, I crashed for about a week and slept.
“It was quite a weekend.”
Allison became quite a sensation, too, as a genuine NASCAR driver with NASCAR roots that achieved success in the Indianapolis 500.
Donnie drove the Indy 500 with ease.
“In the 1970 500, I don’t remember it being difficult,” Allison said. “At one stage of the race, Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti and I were in one heck of a race. In fact, we passed each other about three or four times until I finally got ahead of them and stayed.
“I got a heck of a compliment paid to me when AJ Watson came over to the garage and stuck out his hand and said, ‘You’re the only stock car driver I’ve ever seen that could drive one of these things.’”
Donnie Allison believes a good race car driver drives by feel and that is the way he raced. That is why he was able to adapt to the Indy car as well as he did with the stock cars. The same could be said for the successful IndyCar drivers that ran in NASCAR.
“I wasn’t intimidated by Indy,” Donnie told NBC Sports.com. “Not one time was I apprehensive about the Indy car at all. That is why I did as well as I did; I had the confidence.
“In 1971 on Carburetion Day, there was only one car that ran faster than me that day and it was Al Unser (who would go on to win his second-straight Indy 500 that year). They changed the wing angle on me before the race and said I couldn’t drive a car that loose.
“I believe I would have won the Indy 500 that day if they hadn’t changed the wing angle on me.”
Donnie Allison admitted the car was a handful all day. He once again started 20thand finished sixth.
He was originally going to drive an old Coyote chassis, but Allison had difficulty with that car. Sometimes, his discussions with Foyt were quite heated, but they never let that impact their friendship.
Foyt had a brand-new Coyote that had run laps at 172 miles per hour. He let Donnie in the car, and he ran 173 mph on his first lap.
Foyt withdrew the original car that was assigned to Allison and rival car owner Andy Granatelli protested. Granatelli wanted the satisfaction of bumping one of Foyt’s cars out of the field of 33.
“My first lap was over 175 miles an hour,” Allison said. “I ran 174, 174 and my last lap was 172.
“When I came in, AJ didn’t say, ‘Good job. Congratulations.’ He said, ‘Why did you drop off on that last lap?’
“That was AJ Foyt for you. But he’s my good friend.”
Donnie finished sixth in the 1971 Indianapolis 500.
Older brother Bobby was proud of his little brother, but incredulous at the same time.
“Who could come to Indy and have a fourth place and a sixth and not get a first-class ride for the next year?” Bobby asked. “He deserved better than that.”
Another highlight for the younger Allison was running at the famed Milwaukee Mile.
“That was cool, that was a lot of fun,” Allison said. “And, I bumped Cale Yarborough out of the race. I was really happy about that.
“Milwaukee was a great track. You could pass three or four times a lap. It was a race track where we raced. It was almost like a short track.”
Donnie Allison also ran at Ontario Motor Speedway and Pocono in 1971, but admitted he was having a difficult time and was frustrated. At Pocono, he thought every time he left pit road, he wasn’t going to make it back unless the car was on the back of a wrecker. Allison kept wanting to change springs and Foyt wouldn’t let him. He qualified 15th and ran the first practice, came into the garage and told Foyt he quit.
Foyt wanted to meet with Allison, but Allison didn’t want any part of it. Finally, the two agreed to meet at a Coffee Shop in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Foyt relented and admitted that Allison’s springs would be better than the ones Foyt made him use.
Allison’s first timed lap after the spring chance was 6 miles an hour faster than what he qualified. But a spin out after 48 laps left Allison’s car in the mud.
“Hey Allison, you looked like a Turtle down there with your head coming in and out of the mud,’” Foyt said. “I told him, ‘I guess I screwed up.’
“AJ didn’t have a comeback for that one because I admitted it was my fault.”
Donnie Allison would win three NASCAR Cup races in 1970 and one in 1971 in the two years he ran the Indianapolis 500. He wanted to run for the USAC IndyCar National Championship in 1972, but a deal never materialized.
Allison returned to NASCAR and won a total of 10 Cup races. He was a hard and fierce stock car racer first and foremost, but the NASCAR star of the family was older brother Bobby.
BOBBY ALLISON’S STORY
Winner of 84 NASCAR Cup races and the 1983 championship, Bobby Allison remains a legend and is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But the most successful member of the “Alabama Gang” had a miserable experience in the two Indianapolis 500s that he competed in for famed team owner Roger Penske.
In 1973, Bobby Allison would get his chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500. It ended up being one of the worst experiences of his career up to that point.
“Penske was getting his team put together and at the time Mark Donohue was alive and was one of Penske’s chief engineers,” Bobby Allison told NBC Sports.com. “They asked me to go to an IndyCar test and treated me like a ‘Red-headed Stepchild’ at the test. Mark was there and Peter Revson was there, and they told me, ‘Don’t you dare go fast. You have to go slow or this car is going to kill you.’
“I went out slow. I came back in and they laughed at me.
“This was 8:15 in the morning and they weren’t going to let me go back out until 3:30 in the afternoon. When they let me back on the track, they told me I could go as fast as I wanted, just be careful.”
Allison ran nine laps but didn’t know how fast the speeds were until he came back into the pits. One of the engineers confronted him over the nosepiece of the car and grabbed Allison by his collar and shook his fist in his face.
Allison was stunned.
The engineer was mad because a NASCAR driver had run laps equal to what Donohue and Revson had run. It was the first time I had ever sat in an Indy car.
“I pushed him backwards, took my firesuit off, got in my airplane and came back home,” Bobby recalled to NBC Sports.com. “Donnie had a similar situation, but Donnie put up with it. Donnie’s fuse is sometimes shorter than mine. I was surprised Donnie put up with Foyt and his cronies.
“Roger Penske stepped in and promised to straighten it out. But Roger Penske wanted Gary Bettenhausen to run my car after any and all changes were made. That really irked me.”
Allison thought the world of Donohue and admired the driver that was the cornerstone of Penske Racing in those days.
To add to the misery of 1973, Allison and his wife, Judy, were close friends with popular driver Art Pollard. When Allison and his wife entered the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Pole Day, Pollard was killed in a crashed that happened right before their eyes.
“Judy and I came through the tunnel and this crash happened and it’s Art Pollard getting killed,” Bobby Allison recalled. “Judy wanted to leave right then and there, but I had to do it because I had given my word to Roger Penske.
“All the IndyCar drivers and crewman were convinced they were automatically better than any NASCAR driver. I knew better than that. I was flabbergasted at the attitude.”
After two days of rain and a horrifying crash at the start of the race on Memorial Day Monday when Salt Walther’s car went into the tire fence and spewed hot fuel into the crowd, badly burning dozens of spectators. The race was halted that day for more rain and darkness. Tuesday was completely rained out so on a Wednesday morning, race officials hurriedly tried to start the race.
Allison’s engine blew up on the Parade Lap.
“I had been up there all month and never turned one lap in the Indianapolis 500,” Allison said. “Judy was sitting in the stands for the raise and was only a few hundred feet away from where Swede Savage was killed.
“She was plenty unhappy about the whole experience.”
Penske talked Allison into one more attempt at the Indy 500 in 1975. Allison was driving Penske’s AMC Matador in NASCAR and the combination was enjoying success. But Bobby could not get along with Penske Racing chief mechanic Jim McGee. Changes were made to Allison’s car without his knowledge.
“I missed the field on the first day,” Penske said. “I qualified what would have been the top 10 but it was on the second day.
“I started 13thand led the 23rdlap of the race. I pitted and the fuel system failed and doused me with alcohol. I was sitting in a tub of alcohol and the crew told me to go and ran the car until it ran out of fuel. I got it stopped, lost a lap, had a caution, got the car fixed where I was comfortable. I unlapped myself under the green six laps after the halfway mark of the race.
“Then, my engine blew up two laps later.
“I said, ‘I don’t need this.’ I had worked hard to do well in NASCAR. I wanted to do good in NASCAR.”
Throughout Bobby Allison’s career, he was often at odds with authority figures, be it team owners, NASCAR officials, crew members or fellow drivers.
When told of his older brother’s reflections of the resentment he felt in the Indy 500, Donnie took a more diplomatic view.
“Different personalities and different egos,” Allison said of his older brother and Penske Racing. “When Bobby drove for Penske, he owned his own team and did a lot of the engine work and engineered the car himself.
“Bobby was just like Foyt – he knew what he wanted, he knew how to get it and he didn’t want anyone to know what he wanted.
“Bobby and I had identically built race cars than he did. I was winning all the races in that car and Bobby wasn’t. He wanted to know what was different in my car and his car and I told him, ‘the driver.’ He asked again and I told him what it was.
“He didn’t like that. I beat him at a big race in Birmingham and I told him the same thing. He didn’t like that answer. I did an awful lot of work for Bobby. Bobby Allison Racing was built by Bobby and Donnie Allison.”
Neil Bonnett attempted to compete in the 1979 Indy 500 for team owner Warner Hodgdon, but rain ruined his chance to qualify for the race. Bonnett was driving for the Wood Brothers and was prepared to skip the World 600. But when qualifications interfered with the NASCAR race at Dover, Bonnett withdrew from the Indy 500 and never had a chance to return.
Bobby and Donnie Allison are the only two members of the “Alabama Gang” that ever competed in the Indianapolis 500 and are part of the history and legacy of that race.
“I feel very good about that,” Donnie Allison said. “I ran pretty damn good there.”
Donnie and Bobby both watch the NTT IndyCar Series races on NBCSN and NBC. Although Bobby is more of a stock car fan, Donnie has become a big advocate of the current IndyCar Series, its stars and its races.
“I really like what is happening,” Donnie said. “Jay Frye (INDYCAR President) started thinking about what they needed to do to make the cars more raceable. That’s the problem NASCAR is going through right now. NASCAR is a bunch of Sumo Wrestlers trying to drive the cars because they can’t drive the cars they have.
“Whatever they did in IndyCar, was the right move.”
Donnie is 79 and is part of the Allison Legacy Racing Series. Defending NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series driver Joey Logano competed in that series when he was 12.
Bobby is 81 and remains one of the more tragic figures in the sport. He lost both sons including Clifford in a NASCAR Busch Series crash at Michigan International Speedway on August 13, 1992. Bobby’s son, Davey, killed in a helicopter crash at Talladega on July 13, 1993.
Bobby’s career came to an end when he suffered a very serious head injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway on June 19, 1988, just a few months after he won his third Daytona 500 in a 1-2 finish with his son, Davey.
To this day, Bobby Allison has no recollection of that glorious moment in his life when father and son finished first and second in the Daytona 500.
“To this day, I see replays of it and it’s like I’m watching a movie,” Bobby admitted. “It’s not me and Davey on the track, it’s a movie.”
Bobby became a widower on December 18, 2015 when he lost the love of his life, long-time wife Judy.
His connection to the Indianapolis 500 was not a happy one, but Bobby does have something from that race that is a proud possession to this day.
“I’m still proud of the fact we both represented ourselves well with the speed that we ran and Donnie getting the finishes that he did, and me running as good as I did,” Bobby Allison said. “To lead that 23rdlap of the 1975 Indianapolis 500 – they gave me a little trophy for leading that lap. They used to give the lap leaders a trophy for the laps they led.
“I have that trophy in my house.
“There are a lot of guys who are really good race drivers that don’t have a trophy for leading laps in the Indianapolis 500.”