One Tough -But Classy- CustomerLet me tell you a few things about this guy named Bobby Allison. First, let's go back to a spring afternoon in 1979. The sun was sinking behind evergreen hills, casting long shadows across Talladega Superspeedway. Allison, on this fair day, survived a 17-car pileup and outlasted Neil Bonnett to win the speed carnival that was the Winston 500.

He had been to the roses to reap the harvest of victory and to the press box to tell the people who would tell the world what it's like dodging spinning cars at 200 mph. He had described well the feelings he experienced during different stages of the race, up to and including the checkered flag lap.

At the bottom of the press box steps, a multitude of fans waited. Homage was paid when Allison stepped through the door. He began signing autographs and making conversation with the aficionados of the sport.

Slowly, the crowd thinned until only a few remained. Two youngsters stood in the background. They smiled. They talked with their hands.

Deaf.

One nudged a little closer to their hero and handed him a race program to be autographed.

Allison took the program and spoke to the youngster without looking up. Not hearing a reply, he raised his head and looked into the eyes of the kid.

Apparently startled, the young fan turned to his friend and made communication with his hands.

Allison understood.

The veteran race driver put his hand on the lad's shoulder, tightened his grip, and smiled happily.

Their eyes met again. There was complete understanding. Then, Allison pulled his own cap off, signed his autograph on the bill of it, reached over and removed the youngster's cap and fitted the new one on his head. Allison slapped the kid's cap on his own head and shook the lad's hand.

The trade was made.

Hearts were touched, eyes were filled, and, for the youngster, it was Christmas morning in May.

A touch of class.

Allison was born December 3, 1937, to Edmond (Pop) and Katherine (Mom) Allison of Miami. He began his racing career in 1955. He married his wife, Judy, on February 20, 1960. He started in NASCAR's major league division in 1965, although on May 9, 1964, he was slated to drive one of two Dodges that Ray Fox had at Darlington Raceway for the spring race. Allison drove through one practice session and climbed out of the car, telling Fox he didn't have the experience to drive at Darlington.

Bobby joined the circuit, and a couple of years later, on July 12, 1966, he won his first Cup race at Oxford Plains Speedway. He would win a total of 84 Cup races during his career and one championship.

It was a month after he joined the circuit when people began to realize who Allison was and what he stood for. It was the night of August 27, 1966, that the flamboyant Allison and crusty veteran Curtis Turner engaged in a crowd-stirring, car-smashing battle at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem.

David Pearson won the race on the quarter-mile paved track while Allison and Turner rammed their race cars into each other with relentless abandon.

Turner hooked Allison's rear bumper, spinning him out on Lap 8 of the 250-lap event. Allison lost a lap in the process, but he rejoined the battle up front.

Turner, driving a Junior Johnson-prepared Ford, passed Pearson for the lead, and Allison was trying to pass Turner to unlap himself. Allison then ducked under Turner, and Tom Pistone went outside Turner for the lead. They were three abreast in Turn 3. Allison and Turner came together, and Turner spun. Richard Petty took the lead.

Turner returned to the track, and he moved slowly, anticipating Allison's Chevrolet. Allison sensed the ambush. He didn't fall for it. Rather, Allison cut back and hit Turner's Ford in the rear. After that, it was a war of men and sheetmetal for the next 10 laps. The two drivers used their cars as weapons. Turner spun Allison, Allison spun Turner.

Finally, Turner was waiting for Allison when Allison carefully aimed his limping machine at Turner and buried the front of it into Turner's car.

At this point, NASCAR made an academic decision. Both drivers were ejected from the race-as if either car could run another lap. The association also fined each driver $100 for "rough driving."

Everybody thought there would be a fight, but Turner climbed from his car and walked up through the stands and left the facility. Allison climbed from what remained of his car and walked to the pits.

"I didn't see Turner for a long time after that," Allison said. "Then, one day we were at a racetrack, and I saw him coming. I knew we were going to have it out again, this time fighting. I was expecting as much when he came up to me and put one of those big old hairy arms around my shoulder and said, 'Pops, ain't it about time me and you had a friendly drink?' We never had anymore trouble after that."

This was the beginning of Bobby Allison, the man, who left his calling card anytime there was trouble. Allison feared no one and backed down from no one.

Bobby won three races in a Chevrolet in 1966, and this earned him a ride in Bud Moore's Mercury at the start of 1967. Then David Pearson left Cotton Owens to fill the vacancy on the Holman-Moody team when Fred Lorenzen retired. Allison joined Owens' Dodge team, and it wasn't long before he won a 100-miler at Birmingham. The Northern tour followed, and Owens didn't want to make the tour. Bobby asked permission from Owens to drive a Chevelle up north. Owens said it was all right with him. Allison won at Oxford, Maine, and when he returned home to Hueytown, Alabama, he had a message waiting from Owens. Chrysler executives were upset at Allison winning a race in a Chevy. Allison was fired for winning a race in which his Dodge wasn't entered.

Meanwhile, the latest addition to the Ford camp was Lorenzen. During in-house bickering at Ford's headquarters, Lorenzen had gotten into the act. He had certain ideas, which he expressed freely. Lorenzen apparently nagged Ford until someone in power told him: "If you think you can do better, take a car to Rockingham and race it."

So, in 10 days, Lorenzen rounded up a car, a crew, and a driver. The driver, of course, was Allison, who qualified Third and won the race by a lap over Pearson with Lorenzen calling the shots from the pits.

Ford had finally won a race, and the company gave the green light for the Lorenzen-Allison team to go run the final race of the '67 season. It was a 500-lap event at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, and thus began Allison's biggest rivalry in racing. Allison's Ford and Richard Petty's Plymouth were near equal in speed, and the two turned the track into a half-mile battlefield. On Lap 479, Petty drove under Allison in the first turn and took the lead. Allison caught up on Lap 494 and, after some metal banging, took the lead for good.

As the '67 season ended, Bobby Allison, the race driver, had arrived. He would have several skirmishes with Petty over the years. They banged on each other from West Virginia down to Talladega, and up to New England. Crews actually exchanged blows once.

As the '72 season was coming to a close, their war peaked at North Wilkesboro Speedway. It had been building all season. They beat on each other at the fall race at Richmond and then moved on to Martinsville, where Allison started from the pole. After 156 laps, he was only a car length from putting Petty a lap down. Petty had made an extra stop to fix a flat.

When Petty returned to the track, he was given the "move-over" flag, which he failed to obey.

There was a caution, which closed the field and put Petty right behind Allison. The two got together, and the contact jarred Allison's fuel cap off. NASCAR officials black-flagged Allison, but he ignored the mandate and continued to race. Petty went on to beat Allison by six seconds at the finish. Allison was fined $500 for ignoring the black flag. Petty wasn't fined for refusing to move over, and this upset Allison even more.

The next week was North Wilkesboro. Early on, the two put four laps between themselves and the field. With 60 miles to go, a caution put Allison and Petty nose-to-tail. The two swapped the lead 10 times during the final 39 laps. Then the excitement turned into an outburst of violence the final three laps. Petty took the lead on Lap 389. Allison moved to the inside of Petty on the backstretch and took the lead on 398. Petty hit the third-turn wall, but he quickly regained control and made a bid to regain the lead in Turn 1. The two cars came together again, and this time Petty's car climbed the top of the guardrail.

Allison was in front, but his right-side tires were rubbing sheetmetal and filling the car with smoke. Petty came back and was three car lengths behind when the white flag was waved. Allison ran high in Turn 1 to miss parts from Petty's car lying in the middle of the track. Petty went low and won the race by two car lengths.

A few weeks later, both drivers got their crews together and said enough was enough. This had to stop-and it did between the two.

Bobby was also a teacher. Several times during our careers (mine as a journalist and his as a driver), he would approach me in the garage area. He would have my newspaper in his hand. "I have something I want to talk to you about," he would say. "Do you want to do it here in front of your friends, or had you rather go down behind these trucks?"

"Let's go down behind the trucks," I would reply.

He was fair and honest, and he didn't hold grudges. He would make his point about something I had written. Then I would make my point. We would talk about it, and then we would shake hands when we finished.

He lost two sons, one to racing. Clifton died in a crash at Michigan, and Davey was killed in a helicopter wreck at Talladega. In 1988, Bobby nearly died in a wreck at Pocono, which left him with injuries that forced his retirement.

I asked Father Dale Grubba, a Catholic priest from Wisconsin who has known Bobby for many years and knows him better than most people, how a person could continue under such conditions.

"His faith is strong," Grubba said. "The first day I met him, he was up here in Wisconsin at an automobile dealership and for a race that night. I went to the dealership, and we talked for a long time. That night, as soon as the race was over, he yelled for me to come there. I thought he was going to chew me out, a priest being out so late and at a racetrack. Rather, he said, 'I want to have confession right now.'

"Several times he has shown up at Mass at my church unannounced. The best way I can explain Bobby Allison is:

"His religion is strong. It comes first in his life. His parents taught him that.

"He is a perfectionist. He wants everything perfect. His parents taught him that, too.

"He believes 100 percent that he is a winner, and accepts nothing short of First Place. I don't know who taught him that."