The 1987 Winston 500 Changed NASCAR Permanently
by Tom Jensen August 12, 2020
At Talladega, Davey Allison’s first victory and Bobby Allison’s crash were turning points for the sport.
When a key moment in history happens, its significance is not always recognized right away.
Such is the case for the 1987 Winston 500 at Alabama International Motor Speedway, the track that today is known as Talladega Superspeedway. The Winston 500 was a race of milestones for NASCAR as well as for five members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame: Bobby Allison (2011), Bill Elliott (2015), Robert Yates (2018), Davey Allison (2019) and Jack Roush (2019).
In those days, NASCAR premier series cars raced at the fast, 2.66-mile Alabama track without restrictor plates and as result they turned in some incredible speeds. In qualifying, Elliott put car owner Harry Melling’s Ford Thunderbird on the pole with a lap of 212.809 miles per hour. Not only did Elliott’s lap set a track record, more than 33 years later it remains the fastest single qualifying lap in NASCAR premier series history.
The race began with Elliott on the pole, Bobby Allison on the outside of Row 1 and rookie Davey Allison on the inside of Row 2. But on Lap 22, Bobby lost an engine in his Stavola Brothers Buick, cutting a rear tire, which sent the car spinning. When Allison’s car got sideways on the frontstretch, it got airborne and hit the catchfence, tearing down nearly 100 feet of fencing and causing a red flag period of more than two hours for repairs. Fortunately, the elder Allison was uninjured in the crash.
Once the race resumed, the two fastest cars in the field were both Thunderbirds: Elliott’s No. 9 Melling ride and Davey Allison’s No. 28, which was fielded by Ranier Racing and powered by a Robert Yates-built engine.
Although he led 48 laps, Elliott’s car appeared to drop a valve after 150 laps, knocking him out of contention. As he sat dejectedly in his wounded car, Dr. Jerry Punch walked up to Elliott and asked him if he had the measure of Allison on the race track. “I don’t feel like I could have beaten Davey,” Elliott said. “He was running too good.”
Asked if anyone else could catch Allison, Elliott added, “No. Not a soul.”
With 10 laps to go, Allison made what would prove to be the race-winning pass, going past fellow Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt (2010) to score his first of 19 premier series race victories. Allison would go on to lead 101 of 178 laps, with the race shortened 10 laps because of impending darkness brought on by the long red-flag period.
“This thing’s just been awesome all day,” said Allison as he sat in his car after the race. “These guys did a super job on this car and I could do anything I wanted with it. I’m going to tell you what, I’m just tickled to death.”
Winning at Talladega was especially sweet for Allison, a native of Hueytown, Alabama, about 60 miles from the track. Allison would win again at Dover International Speedway, making him the first driver in NASCAR history to win two premier series races in his rookie season.
The Talladega race would prove to be a watershed moment in NASCAR safety efforts. The prospect of a car getting airborne brought immediate changes to NASCAR in order to slow the cars at the high-speed, high-banked oval. When NASCAR returned to Talladega for the second time in 1987, smaller carburetors were mandated to reduce speeds. Starting in 1988 NASCAR instituted restrictor plates to reduce the flow of the fuel-air mixture into the engines, thereby drastically cutting horsepower.
Later on, NASCAR would enlist the help of Roush, an experienced pilot, to develop roof laps to keep the cars on the ground if they spin at high speeds. Roush’s roof flaps, which have subsequently proceeded through several generations, are still in use today.
And some 33 years later, Davey Allison’s first premier series victory, along with Bill Elliott’s record-setting pole run, will forever live in NASCAR lore.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame is open Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to nascarhall.com/tickets.