Donnie Allison remembered as meaningful mentor, savors ‘wow’ moment at Hall of Fame induction

Donnie Allison on the NASCAR Hall of Fame stage during the induction ceremonies at Charlotte Convention Center
Alejandro Alvarez

The story was recounted in The Tampa Tribune on July 5, 1970, the day after Donnie Allison drove to victory in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. His fifth NASCAR Cup Series win came after Allison and team owner Banjo Matthews had overcome an arm’s-length list of weeklong tribulations and the weight of heavy expectations.

Lacking both a competitive new engine and any last-ditch prospects for securing one, the team filed a late entry for the race just four days earlier. “We were discouraged and ready to junk the whole thing,” Allison recalled after qualifying 15th in a 40-car field, well behind the front-runners. For good measure, he overslept and missed the drivers’ meeting, arriving at the 2.5-mile track at the last possible moment. But Allison awoke to a fresh Junior Johnson motor on loan and newly installed under the hood of his No. 27 Ford, and that was enough to outlast his Firecracker rivals.

Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen wrote that the Daytona 400-miler was another instance of Allison defying long odds, sharing one such story from his modest beginnings in Miami — years before the family settled in Alabama in 1962. His older brother, Bobby, had a 1955 stock car with proven speed, and Donnie’s asking for a turn behind the wheel turned into begging, then nagging after a series of rejections. Bobby finally relented, and Donnie promptly totaled the car on his first try.

Brotherly love turned to tough love and fast. “Give it up, kid,” Bobby said. “You’ll never be a race driver.”

Decades later, Donnie Allison no longer has to prove himself or live up to lofty expectations. A custom-tailored blue jacket and a prized NASCAR Hall of Fame ring can say that for him.

Allison was honored Friday evening with induction into stock-car racing’s shrine, joining seven-time champions Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus in the Class of 2024. The hard-nosed driver joined his brother Bobby, his nephew Davey and longtime family friend Red Farmer as Hall inductees from the vaunted “Alabama Gang.”

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Allison was a gracious recipient, awestruck as he took the stage to make his induction official: “All I can say is wow.”

Thankfully, Allison had much more to say than just “wow,” spinning yarns rich with racing history and offering thanks to his family and to so many fellow drivers, mechanics and car owners. He was a 10-time winner in the NASCAR Cup Series, prevailing with legendary teams run by Matthews, the all-powerful Wood Brothers and colorful character Hoss Ellington. But he was a winner many times over at the short tracks of the Southeast with his crew from the small Birmingham suburb of Hueytown.

“They knew we were there when we showed up,” Allison said, “and they really knew we were there when we left because we took all their damn money.”

But the appreciation was reciprocal for someone known for extracting the most from his equipment but also for giving back to the sport as a mentor to so many — both during and after his racing career.

Among those was a fellow inductee in Johnson, who fondly recalled testing at Talladega Superspeedway during his Xfinity Series days before his big break in NASCAR’s big leagues. Allison was a fixture at his home-state track, and he roamed the garage during the test session, offering pointers for navigating the 2.66-mile facility’s high banks.

“I remember it very vividly because I walked up in the garage area, and he was standing there, and he introduced himself to me,” Allison recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m Jimmie Johnson from El Cajon, California.’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ He says I’m gonna test the Busch car, Xfinity or whatever they called it at the time. And he said, ‘But I’m gonna run Cup.’ I said, ‘That’s the attitude you’ve got to have. You keep that, and you’ll make it.’ We talked a little bit, and I was impressed because he was very strict in the way he felt. He wasn’t talking with a question mark or anything else. He was sure where he was going.”

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Allison also offered help in an earlier era to future Hall of Famer Terry Labonte, albeit inadvertently. His assist came in the form of an impromptu test drive for team owner Billy Hagan in place of Skip Manning, the ’76 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, at Darlington Raceway in the spring of 1978.

“Billy Hagan had hired me, and I was gonna run like five races later in the year, and so he told me, just go to all the races with the team and, you know, kind of get a feel for things and see how everything’s done and this and that,” said Labonte, a member of the Hall’s Class of 2016. “So we’re at Darlington, in the springtime, and we’ve been out running, and we weren’t very good. And Tex Powell was our crew chief, and they’re only like three guys working for our team, you know. …

“We went out there and practiced and practiced, and all of a sudden, the car came in and the guy got out that was driving it, and Donnie’s standing there. Donnie talks to Tex, and he gets in the car and takes off. And he went out and ran his first lap by, he’s like almost a second faster than our car had been the whole time. Tex looked at me, and he said, ‘I think I figured out part of our problem.’ So I was telling Donnie, the next time we went to Darlington, I was driving the car, so he helped my career right there and didn’t even know it.”

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Allison’s expertise and guidance were a boon to many in the NASCAR community, from generations gone by to contemporaries such as Joey Logano, who lauded the 84-year-old legend’s impact in his video introduction. For Allison, it was all part of the journey after surmounting long odds to get here, from those earliest days of tough, brotherly love in Miami with a ’55 stocker.

“We go back in history and in time to Donnie, who was for a lot of the time, he was the other member of the Alabama Gang,” said Class of 2014 inductee Dale Jarrett. “Donnie did everything that he could to make it in this sport, and it’s nice that people recognize what a good talent he was and the things that he was able to accomplish. It’s not always about winning to get here because he took a lot of teams and cars that weren’t capable of running where he put them and made them better. And then after his career, he was always available to help others, so I think that probably had as much to do with him being here, and it’s a well-deserved honor.”