Daytona International Speedway, Valentine’s Day, 1988 and the sound is deafening. A 13-strong, V8 powered NASCAR line-up of rolling thunder hurtles around the 2.5-mile circuit at close to 200mph. Five laps to go. The tuned engines roar almost as loudly as the capacity 160,000 fans clutching at the fences and the cars slot into line, slipstreaming their way ever faster towards a place at the front, the chequered flag and eternal Daytona 500 glory.
In his Number 28 Buick, 27-year-old Davey Allison works his way through the pack until he is sitting just behind the race leader, both cars less than a foot from each other; beaten lumps of steel, sweat and engine travelling at the same speed as the Japanese bullet train.
Two laps to go. Time is running out if Davey is going to make a move. He pulls as close to the car in front as he dares and the huge Miller sponsor lettering ‘High Life’ emblazoned on the rear of the leading Number 12 Ford fills his cockpit screen. Now his life is quite literally in the other driver’s hands: If the lead car blows a tyre, clips a wall or even just makes an aggressive defensive move, their proximity is enough to wipe out both in a heartbeat.
But Davey trusts the lead driver. He knows him as well as anyone. Known him his whole life. Because that man is Bobby Allison, Davey’s dad. The pair are setting Daytona history. No father son duo has ever crossed the finish line numbers one and two, and Davey has no intention of going into the history books as second.
“Now, are you going to honour your father at the end of this, if it gets down to that?” a commentator had asked Davey at the start of the race. The response was immediate: “Not if I can help it."
One lap to go. Davey follows his dad in turn two high against the wall, catching as much speed as he can and then, suddenly, as they roar into turn three, he pops his car out into clear air. "Oh Davey, what you gonna do?" gasps the commentator.
Davey knows what he’s going to do. Win. He pulls briefly alongside his dad and then he’s gone, hurtling away like a screaming Spitfire into the final turn. All or nothing. The Allison family way.
“You got all kinds of emotions going there”, explained Judy Allison, Bobby’s wife, in a 2011 NASCAR Hall Of Fame documentary. “It’s your husband, it’s your son… somebody walked up to me and said ‘well, who are you pulling for?’ I said, ‘the one who pays the bills’, what else can you say?”
If he could just hold his son off for this final attack, the one who paid the bills was about to set a second record because even by NASCAR standards, where big beaten up old cars tend to resemble their drivers in much the same way weathered dogs look like their owners, Bobby Allison was old. Born in 1937 and having celebrated his 50th birthday three months earlier, Bobby had long cemented his reputation as a racing legend by the time of the ‘88 Daytona 500.
In 1979, at the same circuit, he watched his brother, Donnie, tangle and crash with Cale Yarborough on the final lap. Bobby finished the race, then in true Southern style drove back around the circuit to join his brother in the ensuing fist fight. It was all in a day’s work. Recalling the outcome, Bobby always insisted he wasn’t to blame and that Cale simply, “ran his nose into my fist several times”.
In 1987 at Talladega, the year before he found himself being tailgated by his own son, Bobby’s car had dramatically defeated gravity, lifting off the ground at 210mph, spinning while airborne before smashing into 100 yards of protective fencing. It’s just part of a career that would see Bobby become one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, becoming inducted in the Motorsports Hall Of Fame in 1992 and the NASCAR Hall Of Fame in 1993.
But right now, at the 30th Daytona 500, with half a lap to go, Bobby watches his son make his move, and keeps his nerve. A younger driver might have put in a knee-jerk defence, but Bobby doesn’t flinch from the racing line and Davey, now low in the turn and no longer slip-streaming, runs out of speed and has no choice but to slot into second place again as they cross the line. It’s over. Three Daytona wins for Bobby, the oldest man to win at Daytona and the first father/son, one/two win at Daytona. History had been made several times.
“You know when I was a little kid I always dreamed about racing with my dad and having a one-two finish but…I wanted him to be second”, laughed a beer soaked (by his dad) Davey after the race. And even though he won, for Bobby, it felt like the changing of the guard. “I could see the nose of Davey’s car out of the corner of my eye. It was a great feeling at the finish to look back and see somebody you think is the best coming up in the sport and know it’s your son.”
Bobby Allison is still alive today, but he doesn’t remember a single minute of that ’88 victory. Halfway through that same season he was in a crash that nearly killed him and ended his racing career. Declared dead on arrival at the hospital, Doctors saved his life, but they couldn’t save his short-term memory. Davey died at Talladega in 1993.