One of my favorites back when he was racing was the great Bobby Allison — and the biggest reason why was because he’d show up anytime, anyplace to simply drive a racecar. Allison liked to travel all over the country when he wasn’t busy with NASCAR, putting up a schedule much like Ken Schrader will run nowadays.
And Allison was a great “hired gun,” too. He’d come into any local track for the right price — but he wasn’t just making an appearance for the money. Usually bringing his own equipment in tow, Allison always wanted to win your race while he was at it.
The late Milt Hartlauf, a superb promoter I’ve mentioned before, brought Allison to the Bluegrass 300 at the old Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville in 1974. This was a 300-lapper on the quarter-mile track, run in three 100-lap segments — “Monza Style,” as we put it. The name came from the “Race of Two Worlds” at Monza, Italy in the 1950s, when the Indy roadsters ran in a segmented race against their European counterparts.
For our format, we lined the cars up by qualifying in the first 100-lapper — then, we inverted them according to their finish in that one for the second. The third and final segment was done the same way.
On the day of the event, Allison’s car arrived early in the afternoon — but its driver was running late. There weren’t any cell phones back then, of course, but we got a call from the airport that Allison had called, reporting he was held up because of the weather. Charlie Glotzbach then took the car out and hotlapped it, getting it down into a reasonable time before reporting that it “felt pretty good.”
Well, we had just completed time trials when Allison finally showed up; but Milt told him he’d give him a shot at qualifying late if he’d just take the car out there and turn a decent lap.
I found out about this one on the radio. “Just let him have a couple of warmup laps and we’ll put the clock on him,” Milt told me. “When he’s going fast enough to make the race, I’ll tell you, and you can drop the green, then the checker on him.”
This was an unusual setup, to say the least; but we were paying Allison to be there, and the promoter’s word was law if you respected him. And I did respect Milt Hartlauf a bunch — so I did what I was told, no questions asked.
Now, bear in mind that Allison had never seen the race track before. But he took one slow warmup lap and then dropped the hammer; one lap later, Milt was crackling on the radio once again.
“Throw the flag! He’s under the track record already!”
Needless to say, Allison qualified on the pole with a new track record, and started the first 100-lapper right at the front. But the real race was for Allison to make it back in time; he had to run back to the airport to move his airplane, which the driver had just left sitting in front of the terminal.
I was impressed by the whole scenario, to say the least; and I told him so at driver introductions.
Unfortunately, the story didn’t have a really happy ending for Allison. After 20 laps in the lead, he started spraying water everywhere.
While I was picking up the black flag, Milt said, “Is it that bad?” I told him the cars behind Allison were sliding, and I was getting hot water all over me each time he came by. So, there was no choice; I threw the black, and Allison’s night was over.
12 years later, at Indianapolis Raceway Park, our general manager, the late Bob Daniels (another promoter for whom I had the utmost respect), brought Bobby in to race a few times. He appointed my son Matt — 16 back then — as his designated driver to bring him to and from the airport.
They got to be good friends, and one night, on the way back to the airport, Matt recalled the story I had told him about that Louisville race.
“That was your dad that black-flagged me?” Allison said. “I’ve been looking for that guy.”
“We’ve got to talk the next time I come up here.”