Rivalries among NASCAR drivers and teams can get physical. They fly hot fast, and are often in plain view for everyone to see. When it comes to past rivalries, longtime fans look to the rivalry between Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip in 1981, ’82 and ’83 as one of the most intense since the sanctioning body was formed in December 1948.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees are now friendly to one another as they exchange handshakes and smiles. They never went nose to nose in the garage area as drivers, but showed just how competitive and hungry two of NASCAR’s greatest could be. A look back in history helps paint a verbal storyline still talked about today.
In 1972 Allison, the winner of 85 Cup races during his career, enjoyed one of his best seasons with 10 victories and a second-place finish in points while driving for team owner Junior Johnson. Sadly, the chemistry between Allison and Johnson was often strained, so much so they parted ways after only one season. Allison went on to field his own winning Chevrolets and drove American Motors Matadors owned by Roger Penske and Fords fielded by Bud Moore through 1980.
Also in 1972, Waltrip came onto the scene as a boisterous rookie driver who never hesitated to speak his mind. He was on the rise as one of NASCAR’s new stars and spent the decade winning in his own car, as well as those owned by Bill and Jim Gardner of DiGard Racing through the 1980 season.
Ironically, Allison and Waltrip were respectful of each other in the beginning. Allison built numerous short-track cars for local racers out of his Hueytown, Ala., shop. Waltrip’s short-track team owner, P.B. Crowell, bought Allison’s cars and asked him to help Waltrip with chassis setups.
“Darrell and I began as great friends,” Allison said. “My wife Judy and his wife Stevie have always been good friends because they continue to be very classy ladies. Early in Darrell’s career, he was the recipient of my racing knowledge. I would go along to tests with him and helped give him advice about the cars and how they should handle on the track.”
Waltrip, the winner of 84 Cup races, also remembers their early years as strong and productive. Allison was a mentor of sorts to the young lion wanting to make his mark on the sport.
“People may not realize how much our careers paralleled each other,” Waltrip said. “Bobby loved to run the short tracks and we raced each other a lot when I was getting started down in Huntsville and Birmingham. We raced together a lot on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights before I ever got to the Cup series. I knew Bobby pretty well. Bobby was a great help to me. When I got started Bobby taught me a lot about setting up race cars. His brother, Donnie, did as well. They had a big influence on me in my early years.”
Both drivers were with solid championship NASCAR teams in 1981. That meant intense pressure to win. Allison drove Pontiacs for Harry Ranier while Waltrip wheeled Buicks for Johnson. That year Allison won five races and finished second in points to Waltrip, who earned his first championship on the strength of 12 victories.
In 1982, Allison finished second to Waltrip in points again after logging eight wins. This time he was in the DiGard Racing Buick Waltrip had vacated a year earlier. Waltrip won 12 more races for Johnson and was enjoying his best years in racing.
The tables turned in 1983. Allison collected his first and only Cup championship after earning six wins with DiGard Racing. Waltrip finished second in points, just as Allison had during the two previous years. Strangely, the season finale in Riverside, Calif., featured numerous flat tires on Allison’s Buick as well as sugar in his gas tank, which was discovered days after the race. Their sources remain a mystery.
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