When it comes to trivia bench racing, save this one until the rent money is on the table.
Question: Before Nigel Mansell in 1993, who was the last rookie to complete 500 miles in the Indianapolis 500?
Answer: Donnie Allison.
Donnie Allison? He was a stock car driver.
Yes, but in 1970, in an A.J. Foyt entry, he finished fourth and took Chase Rookie of the Year honors on the lead lap of the “500,” a feat that was not achieved again for 23 years. Roberto Guerrero became the closest at 495 miles in 1984.
“I’m not much into statistics or that kind of stuff,” said Donnie, 70, from his Salisbury, N.C. home. “But a couple of people told me that, and you better check it to make sure.”
Allison, his brother, Bobby, Cale Yarborough and Lee Roy Yarbrough all took their turns in running the “500” in the early ‘70s, invading Yankee land. Donnie was the most successful. He ran it twice, finishing sixth in 1971 in his other start.
“I kept saying to Foyt: ‘When are you going to let me run an Indy car? When are you going to let me run an Indy car?’” said Donnie. “He kept saying, ‘Aw, you’re a taxi driver.
“In 1970, I talked to him at Daytona, and he said OK. ‘70 was quite an experience. I crashed in practice, and it took us seven days to fix the car. Once we got the car together, I ran faster than I had all month.
“I liked it. I enjoyed it. The Indy cars are quite a bit lighter, more acceleration and horsepower, but I thought they drove easier. I didn’t have a problem to adapt because I ran a lot of supermodifieds. It was the first time that I started three abreast, but that didn’t seem too awkward to me. I never even thought about it. In ‘71, I wanted to run the championship. I went to Ontario and it was terrible, went to Milwaukee and ran pretty good, then went to Pocono and ran really good but crashed.”
“When they decided to do that, I was concerned it wasn’t going to be a good race, but I was definitely wrong.”
Today, his 17-year-old grandson Justin is running Allison Legacy cars at places like Hickory, Rockingham and Orange County in North Carolina and Dillon, S.C.
“He’s a good driver and with the right breaks, you’ll see an Allison right up there again,” Donnie said. “I’m the crew chief, chief mechanic and everything on the car. I still have my farm in Alabama, but my whole family is over here. I have two great-grandchildren.”