’79 Daytona: Donnie Allison ‘recalls’ the backstretch brawl

GEORGETOWN — Retired NASCAR star Donnie Allison arrived Sunday as the special VIP guest at the 7th Annual Georgetown Delaware Breast Cancer Awareness Car, Truck, Motorcycle and Tractor Show in a Georgetown Fire Company engine with a police escort.

It was his kind of gig and crowd.
“I really enjoy it,” said Mr. Allison. “This is my kind of an event. I like to get out, meet people of all different phases of life – little bitty kids, the ‘old’ kids, everybody. It’s just really good camaraderie.”

Donnie Allison, who turned 80 in September, won 10 NASCAR Grand National/Winston Cup major series races in his career, which spanned 1966 to 1988. He is part of racing’s “Alabama Gang,”

In some ways he is known more for a race he did not win: the 1979 Daytona 500.
The world will never know the path Donnie Allison’s racing career may have taken had there been a different ending to that race in February 1979.

Leading on the final lap with hard-charging Cale Yarborough gearing to pass for his third Daytona 500 victory, Donnie Allison, older brother Bobby Allison and Yarborough went down in history, garnering the live television spotlight in the famous backstretch fight that put NASCAR on the map.
Donnie Allison, seeking to end his Daytona 500 win drought after a couple near misses, and Yarborough, who had climbed from two laps down into second place, were running 1-2.

As Yarborough tried to pass on the inside, they banged fenders several times. Both cars slid up the banking into the outside wall and funneled down into the infield, no longer running. Richard Petty won the race, edging Darrell Waltrip for his sixth Daytona 500.

“Well, I was somewhere Cale wanted to be,” said Donnie Allison. “At that time in ’79 the blocking wasn’t going on like it is now, and in fact you can call what I did trying to block, but I wasn’t blocking. I was taking a lane. I wasn’t going to let him underneath of me. I had to give him all the room he wanted on the outside. We’ll never know that now, because he didn’t try to go out there.”

The 1979 Daytona was a pioneering event in motorsports. It was the first 500-mile race in America broadcast live from flag to flag.
As CBS announcers Ken Squier and David Hobbs were saluting Petty’s victory and recapping the event, cameras switched to the altercation on the backstretch. “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison,” said Mr. Squier.

Bobby Allison had pulled off the backstretch to check on his brother.
Yarborough’s documented take on the incident is that he had twice gotten by Donnie Allison to make up two laps that put him on the lead lap and back in the hunt for the checkered flag.

“He (Yarborough) ran into the back of me before we ever hit side to side. I knew he wasn’t going to get under me,” said Donnie Allison. “It was a bad situation because you don’t win the Daytona 500 every day. That was the third time, really, I should have won it, and I hadn’t won it yet.”
Donnie Allison recalls that famous fight in his book, “Donnie Allison … As I Recall.”

“It became a little bit more than a little altercation. It became a pretty big one. Cale and I we got out of the cars, and neither one of us were hurt, which was nice. He said a few things to me, and I said a few things to him, but we didn’t never touch each other physically,” said Donnie Allison. “And Bobby drove up, and his first question he asked me was am I alright. I said,

Donnie Allison arrives.

‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ He asked me if I wanted to ride back to the garage area and I said, “No, I’m going to stay here and come back when they bring the car.’ And all this time Cale was walking over to Bobby’s car. I was probably 15, 18, 20 feet away from them. And he hit Bobby with his helmet. I ran over there and grabbed him by arm, and told him, ‘You know, if you wanted to fight, I was the SOB you need to be fighting with.”

“I don’t know how Bobby got out that fast. He was hooked into all his radios and shoulder harness and everything,” Donnie Allison said. “But he got out in a pretty big hurry and I knew that all hell was going to break loose then.”

Among the first to get Donnie Allison’s autograph was NASCAR fan Mike Stanfield of Laurel. He snapped a selfie with Donnie Allison.
“Without the fight in ’79, nobody would know Donnie Allison …,” said Mr. Stanfield. “The first televised 500-mile race from flag to flag. And now it’s a must see. No matter how boring or how much you disagree with the rules, you’ve got to watch the Daytona 500.

“It’s amazing. NASCAR drivers have always been accessible to everybody. And now, they are older, and you can actually have more time, and kind of meet and greet and talk about the actual things that built NASCAR,” said Mr. Stanfield.

Donnie Allison, accompanied by wife of 60 years Pat on their trip from their Salisbury, North Carolina home to Georgetown, has many fond racing memories. In addition to stock cars, he was the Rookie of the Year in the 1970 Indianapolis 500.

“Probably, I have to go back to 1970. I ran fourth at Indianapolis and a week later I won the World 600. It wasn’t on the same weekend. It was a weekend apart,” said Donnie Allison. “Every race I won was a major accomplishment.”

“I think the one that sticks out the most in my mind was the 1976 National 500 at Charlotte,” he said. “I was in Hoss Ellington’s car the first time. I had gotten fired from DiGard … Bill Gardner. I was told on the back of boat after the ’75 Daytona 400, the Firecracker 400, that I couldn’t drive anymore; and that’s why I was fired. Well, I won that race, and I walked over, and I poked Bill in chest, ‘I’m the S.O.B. that can’t drive, remember?’”

He remains connected to the motorsport’s world, though no longer competitively behind the wheel.

“I’m still involved in everything. I ride in the Kyle Petty Charity Ride every year on my motorcycle. Last year we rode from Seattle, Washington to Key Largo, Florida,” said Donnie Allison. “Age is only a figure of speech. They don’t let me get in no more, they don’t want me to show the kids up.”

Donnie Allison says NASCAR is obviously vastly different from his racing days. He’s hoping it is on the rebound with a change for the better.

“NASCAR has done just like everybody else they’ve gone through a phase. We were very family oriented. I mean everything was built on family back in the day. Pat and I raised all of kids around the racetrack; Bobby (Allison) and Judy and their kids. We were together all the time,” Donnie Allison said.

“Then it went to the motorhome transition where all the drivers were in their own motorhome and nobody ever go to see them. I really think it hurt the sport. But it is coming back better now, they are more accessible. And I think they ought to be because the people are what make it happen. The drivers do the work, driving, but the fans, the people that go make it happen. If we don’t have fans, we don’t have anything.”

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