MOORESVILLE Bobby Allison, 73 years old with a slight limp and a thick head of silver-gray hair, is sitting in a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off Interstate 77 nursing a cup of coffee that he's turned tan by adding cream and sugar.
He is just days from being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, part of the second class of honorees and his blue-gray shirt bears both his stitched signature and the hall of fame logo.
It's an honor built on more than his 84 official Sprint Cup victories (85 if you ask Allison who argues a 1971 win in Winston-Salem should count), tied for third all-time with Darrell Waltrip and behind only Richard Petty and David Pearson.
Allison is going into the Hall of Fame because he was one of the grittiest guys to ever strap into a race car. He believed in simple things - horsepower, will and tenacity.
"Early on I said, I can do this and I kept having good luck at the track and really enjoying it," Allison said, cupping his mug between his hands. "I enjoyed the feel of the car and working to make it go faster. Just the whole deal...I wanted to be good at it."
Perhaps Allison's greatest gift also was his curse - he was as headstrong as he was fast. He spent a career bouncing from one car owner to another, often during the same season. At times, Allison had to build and fund his own operation, driving his own rigs to tracks big and small.
The fourth of 10 children raised in Miami, Allison understood making his own way.
He didn't have the Petty industry behind him nor Pearson's gift for speed. But Allison had a stubborn streak that carried him from his childhood home in Miami to the tiny town of Hueytown, Ala., and all the way to the hall of fame.
"Bobby got labeled as difficult or hard to deal with it, but it was because he was generally right and telling the truth," said Ben White, who authored Allison's book, "Circle of Triumph - The Bobby Allison Story."
Along the way, Allison won the 1983 Cup series championship but lost two sons, Clifford and Davey, to his twin passions, racing and flying. Allison also lost a chunk of his memory, darkened by a vicious crash at Pocono in 1988 that ended his driving career and nearly took his life.
Sipping coffee and talking on a weekday morning, the edge that defined Allison has softened. He laughs about the battles he's had through the years with everyone from Junior Johnson to Cotton Owens but he remembers them - and they remember him.
"He had an inner desire to win that surpassed 99 percent of any drivers I ever saw," racing promoter Humpy Wheeler said. "He didn't care much for second place.
"You'd never hear him say 'We had a great day today finishing third.' That was like dirty dishes to him."
Allison is credited with bringing stock car racing to Alabama when he moved to Hueytown, but, the truth is, the sport brought him there with its abundance of small tracks and hot competition. He'd fallen under racing's spell as a 10-year-old at Opelika Speedway at a naval air station near Miami and it has stayed with him over the decades.
He ran his first Daytona 500 in 1961 and, 27 years later, he won it with his son Davey second.
In a career of checkered flags, it's the one that means the most - and the one Allison can't remember.
He survived hard hits as a driver, even being launched into a catch fence at Talladega when he was going 200 mph, a crash that led to the use of restrictor plates on superspeedways. But when Allison was T-boned at Pocono in the Miller High Life 500 in 1988, nothing was ever the same again.
His left leg was shattered and his brain was rattled so severely that parts of his memory have never returned. Allison remembers the aftermath of the wreck, being strapped onto a stretcher and waking up with a soft cast running the length of his left leg in an Allentown, Pa., hospital.
He remembers falling when he tried to escape from the hospital, chuckling at his audacity, despite injuries that kept him in a rehab hospital for two months after his initial six-week hospital stay.
But he can't remember his proudest moment, the one with Davey following him across the start-finish line in the 1988 Daytona 500. When he watches replays of it now, he thinks, "Somebody made a really neat movie. That guy even looks like me, but he's not as handsome."
That was five years before Davey died in a helicopter accident at Talladega, just months after Clifford had died in a practice session at Michigan International Speedway.
It's cruel, the way he can't remember the best time but can't forget the worst.
"Some days are really good," Allison says. "Some days are really bad."
He uses the paper napkin under his coffee cup to blot his tears.
This is a happy time, though, a time to honor a man built to drive and who did it well.
"I had this incredible personal desire," Allison says. "Racing was a feeling of being able to accomplish something. Everybody feels good when they achieve success."
The cup of coffee is empty.
Bobby Allison gets up to leave. He has another appointment to keep.
And the hall of fame awaits.
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