With daunting nicknames such as “The Track Too Tough To Tame” and “The Lady In Black,” Darlington Raceway has long been one of NASCAR’s most intimidating racetracks.
But for NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, such was not the case at Darlington. There was absolutely no fear of getting around the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped track for one of the founding members of NASCAR’s legendary Alabama Gang.
“The difficulty was certainly very high, but that’s part of what I enjoyed about it,” Allison told NASCAR Talk. “Any time we went to a track that anybody else complained about, I automatically felt better about it because that was where I felt they’d have a weakness, while I’d address it as just another racetrack and go from there.”
That philosophy inspired and led Allison to four Southern 500 wins: 1971, ’72, ’75 and ’83.
“I ran good at Darlington, even pretty early on, but just didn’t have the finish until I first won there in 1971,” Allison said. “That was in the Holman-Moody ’69 Mercury. It was actually one of the first Coca-Cola identified cars and I’m proud of that. The whole thing went real good for us.
“It was a great day for me, it was a long, hard day like they always are at Darlington. I put up with the heat, but I had a real advantage on that because I enjoyed the heat, while the other guys did not enjoy the heat. I liked that about it. It really was a great win for me.”
Allison’s 1971 triumph inspired him to repeat the following Labor Day weekend.
“I was just incredibly proud of that whole deal, the first win and then the second win,” Allison said. “After the first one, I came back the next year in the 1972 Southern 500 with Junior Johnson in a Chevrolet. Once again it was a great day for me. The car was strong and everything went right and we got the win.”
All told, Allison made 45 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. He earned five wins – four in the Southern 500 and one in the 1975 Rebel 500 – as well as 13 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes and four poles.
After finishing sixth in the 1973 Southern 500 and 30th in the 1974 edition due to mechanical failure, Allison earned his third Southern 500 victory in 1975, driving an AMC Matador for team owner Roger Penske.
“I mean, who do you know who ever won a race in a Nash?” Allison said with a big laugh of AMC’s then-parent company. “I even had a little stamped out placard on my dashboard that said, ‘This is a product of Nash Kelvinator Corporation, AMC Matador number so-and-so.’ I thought that was so cute to have that up there.
“We were the underdogs. We won the first race of the season on the road course at Riverside in the Matador, and then we won the Rebel 500 (in the spring at Darlington). It was a tough race, the car was good all day and I felt good about myself winning it.
“And then the Southern 500, it was a typical Southern 500 with all the heat and the agony that goes into NASCAR races, especially at that day and time. We wanted to get a win in that Matador and it was really a special day for me.”
But even with three wins that season, including the Southern 500, 1975 overall was one of the toughest seasons Allison had in his career.
He made just 19 starts (out of 30 races on the schedule) and had 9 DNFs, finishing far out of the running for the championship in 24th place. That was the only season Allison finished outside either the top 5 or top 10 from 1970-84.
Still, Allison tied David Pearson and Cale Yarborough for most Southern 500 wins in the 1970s, with three each. The only other driver to win a Southern 500 in that decade was Buddy Baker, who passed away last month after a battle with cancer.
Allison’s favorite memory of Darlington came from his fourth and final Southern 500 win in 1983, the same year he’d pilot the DiGard Racing Buick to his only Winston Cup championship.
The win was great, but how he earned it – and the gloating he did afterward – makes Allison laugh still to this day.
“It was really hot and was just one of those tough days,” Allison said. “Gary Nelson was my crew chief. I told Gary to get the sheet metal ripper and cut a square above my head in the roof of the car so it gets air into me. So he did it and it was perfect, it really helped the car and me stay cool. I’m comfortable and everything is going really okay.
“And then (NASCAR inspector) Joe Gazaway, the younger brother of Bill Gazaway, NASCAR’s chief inspector at the time, had a particular dislike for me and clearly got riled about us cutting this flap in the roof.
“So he had us blackflagged, I came in and stopped, and he was throwing such a fit that Gary bent the flap back down, taped it down like he was told to do, and I went back on to win the race. I’ve always had a sly smile about that one event.”
Allison ranks Darlington third in his personal list of favorite racetracks that he competed upon. This year’s return to the Labor Day Weekend tradition has even greater meaning to him, as he’s missed the last several years of attending races there.
“I will be going this time and am looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s a special event, moving back to the Labor Day weekend and the old Southern 500 tradition. I’ll tell you, there were just so many good times at Darlington.”