Craig Murto: Judy Allison was special

Judy Allison unexpectedly died last week at the age of 74 in North Carolina, due to complications from surgery.

All spouses of people involved in racing are special, but Judy Allison holds a special place as the matriarch of one of racing’s legendary families. She certainly suffered through more tragedy than most.

In 1988 Bobby Allison nearly lost his life in an accident at Pocono. Winner of 84 Cup races and the championship, the soon-to-be 78-year-old wasn’t expected to make it through the night. Lingering issues related to a head injury suffered in the crash forced him to retire from competition.

In 1992, the Allisons’ youngest son, Clifford, was killed in a practice crash at Michigan in what is now the Xfinity Series. The late Reds Kagle was crew chief and said that accident “took the wind out of my sails.” One can only imagine how that tragedy affected the Allisons.

Less than a year later, oldest son Davey Allison lost his life attempting to land a helicopter at Talladega Superspeedway. The stress took a toll on the Allisons’ marriage, and for a while they split up. But while consoling another racing dynasty at the loss of Adam Petty, Bobby and Judy reconciled and were together until the end.

In a released statement Richard Petty, one of Bobby Allison’s greatest rivals and closest friends, said, “Judy has been a part of the racing community and our family for as long as we can remember. We raced against each other, but both Bobby and Judy quickly became friends of ours. And there wasn’t anything Judy wouldn’t do to help you out. She was someone you could trust to always be there. Judy showed tremendous strength, love and grace through all of life’s most difficult moments. She will be forever in our hearts and always a part of our Petty family. Our thoughts and prayers are with Bobby and his family at this time.”

In a statement, NASCAR said it “extends its condolences to the friends and family of Judy Allison, the wife of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison. Judy, the matriarch of a cornerstone NASCAR family, provided the foundation for the careers of a legendary husband and two sons who both lost their lives entirely too soon. Her love extended well beyond her own family, as many in the NASCAR family leaned upon Judy for support and compassion during many difficult times. We are deeply saddened by the loss of a true friend, and a woman who has given much to our sport.”

Judy Allison touched my life as well.

I was pretty green at the writing thing when I jumped in deep over my head and wrote a story about Reds Kagle for the now defunct Stock Car Racing magazine. Editor Dick Berggren sent my manuscript back to me with so much red ink on it you would have thought he cut his wrist and bled all over it. But I called him to see what I could do to make it better – and learn my craft as I go – and fortunately he worked with me.

The first thing I had to do was actually interview the people that Kagle referenced. That meant I had to talk to Geoff Bodine, and Bobby Allison, among others. Kagle provided their phone numbers.

I worked as a repair technician for a government contractor at the time, repairing computer hardware. This was long before I ever received an offer to write full time; I was pretty nervous about contacting these famous people. So nervous, in fact, I called in sick from work so I could muster the guts to actually make the phone calls.

Lucky for me, the first number I called was Allison’s. And lucky for me, the first person I spoke to was Judy Allison.

She was as friendly and kind as can be. Though Bobby wasn’t home at the time, she insisted that he’d be more than pleased to talk to me if I called back in half an hour.

I called back and she said, “I told Bobby to expect your call; he can’t wait to talk to you.”

The Bobby Allison interview was a success, and gave me the confidence to continue to press forward and eventually build a career. The story was rewritten, and Berggren published it. I was a green-around-the-gills writer back then and will never forget the kind words of Judy Allison.

During this holiday season, please keep the Allison family in your thoughts and prayers.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.