If there was ever a child born to be a race car driver, it was Davey Allison. If there was ever a race car driver who never forgot his roots, and always had a few moments to sign an autograph, answer a question or smile for a photo with a fan, it was Davey Allison. And if there was ever a hero of the sport who left us too soon, it was Davey Allison.
Perhaps it was only natural Davey wanted to drive race cars since before he could say the word. His father, Bobby, was one of NASCAR’s greatest stars, and the titular head of the storied Alabama gang. His Uncle Donnie was also one of the all time greats of the sport. Allison’s earliest memories of childhood were riding with his dad in an old pick up truck, looking over his shoulder at a beat up old modified racer, and thinking that old car had to be the most beautiful thing in the world.
Bobby Allison did not hand his son a race car when Davey got to be of age to drive one. Instead Davey was allowed to use the shop, and given a job helping out so he could afford to build his car if he spent his money wisely. By that point Bobby could easily have afforded to have given his son a car, but there was a lesson Davey needed to learn. No one had handed Bobby anything when he was a young man. Building and wrenching on his own car gave Davey a feel for how a race car and its chassis operated, and how to set them up for a race, a skill that would remain valuable even when he had reached a point in his career someone else turned the wrenches for him. The ability to communicate with a crew chief and explain what the car is doing and what needs to be changed is a valuable asset to a driver. Having to sit out a few races because he didn’t have the money in his pocket to repair a car he wrecked was a valuable lesson to the younger Allison about not tearing up equipment. Having to save every nickel and dime and go without some of the things he might have liked to have was a lesson about the sacrifices a racing career is going to require. And there was another lesson taught early in Davey’s career as well. He became so consumed with his car and his racing, Davey’s grades in school, which had never been spectacular, began dropping. Bobby laid down the law. Davey had to keep up his grades or the race car stayed parked. Allison became a much better student. Meanwhile out on the race track, the young driver was earning Straight A’s.
Success was not long in coming, despite the low budget operation Davey managed with a few of his friends, and occasional advice from his father. But that success was not enough. Davey wanted to move up to the big leagues, Winston Cup.
Davey Allison finally got his chance to drive a Cup car at 24 years of age. Hoss Ellington made a Chevy that had been driven by David Pearson available for him at the July race in Talladega. NASCAR was a bit hesitant about letting a rookie, any rookie, make his first Cup start on the circuits fastest speedway, a track where Bill Elliott took the pole for that year’s event at over 200 miles per hour. But in those days, races did not always sell out, and the interest that would be generated by seeing Alabama’s own Bobby Allison’s boy make his first start was going to sell some tickets. All weekend Davey was mobbed by reporters because of his last name. During the race on Sunday, he showed he was more than the son of famous father. Davey Allison drove to a 10th place finish in his very first Winston Cup start. The press mobbed him again, but for different reasons. It was apparent immediately Davey Allison was the real deal. Based on that strong performance Allison earned two more rides with Ellington that season.
Allison’s first Winston Cup ride in the 1986 season was with Sadler Brothers. At Darlington, his career took a nose dive. The result was not a good one. Davey got involved in first lap crash and finished 39th. In a sport where you are only as good as your last finish, the pundits began once again wondering if Davey was just capitalizing on his last name, and the Talladega race had just been a fluke. But Junior Johnson may have had the best eye for talent in NASCAR’s history and he saw in Davey Allison a jewel in the rough. When Neil Bonnett was injured at Pocono that July, Junior asked Davey to step in and drive the highly regarded Budweiser No. 12 entry at Talladega the next week. If the fact Junior picking such an inexperienced driver didn’t raise some eyebrows, Davey’s strong seventh place finish certainly did. By that fall, Davey had achieved his goal. He had signed on with Harry Ranier and JT Lundy for a full time ride in 1987.
There were a lot of questions going into the 1987 for that season. The team had lost its driver, Cale Yarborough, and its sponsor, Hardees. Crew chief Waddell Wilson had jumped ship as well. Ranier’s finances were not in great shape. But he was able to sign Texaco as a sponsor, Joey Knuckles as a crew chief, and a soft spoken man, Robert Yates as the team manager and engine builder. Such was to be the crew that would try to help a largely inexperienced driver make his big break in the Winston Cup ranks.
It didn’t take long for the team to show promise. Davey earned the outside pole for the Daytona 500. While his finish did not lead up to the promise of the start, it was clear that the hastily assembled team meant to be contenders. As could be expected, Allison showed promise but also made some rookie mistakes. A ninth place after winning the pole at the second event of the season at Rockingham was followed by a crash at Richmond. A strong fifth at Atlanta was followed by a savage crash at Darlington. Ironically enough, Davey wrecked and spun into the path of his father Bobby, eliminating the elder Allison as well. Davey’s car was engulfed in flames and he had to crawl out the wreckage quickly to avoid being badly burned. It was downhill from there with Allison missing the next three races. But something remarkable was about to happen.
Davey Allison qualified third at his old stomping grounds, Talladega, early that May, one place behind his father. The two Allison’s were fated to have two very different sorts of races. Bobby was involved in a terrible crash that sent his Buick airborne into and almost through the catch fencing that separated the grandstands from the track. Davey saw the whole wreck unfold in his rearview mirror. He had a long time to stew over what had happened during the ensuing two and a half hour red flag period to repair the track. Still when the racing resumed, Davey not only returned to the track, he headed for the front. Late in the going, he passed no less a driver than Dale Earnhardt to take the lead, and held on to win when NASCAR had to drop the checkered flag early because of falling darkness. In his 14th start Davey Allison had won his first Winston Cup race, the last unrestricted engine race held at Talladega.
Of course racing is a sport of ups and downs. The next race at Charlotte he lost an engine. But the race after Charlotte, at Dover, Allison won yet again after a spirited battle with his dad, who wound up blowing an engine. The season of ups and downs continued, though there were more ups than downs. While Davey didn’t win anymore races, he did finish a close second three times – to Earnhardt at Michigan, Elliott at Talladega, and to Ricky Rudd at Dover, not bad company. There was no more question that Allison was the real deal. He had won two races during his rookie season, a feat no Winston Cup driver had ever managed before or since. Naturally he earned Rookie of the Year Honors. A strong fifth place finish at the season ender at Atlanta seemed to indicate that the team was on track to compete with the big dogs in 1988.
While the driver and crew were ready, Ranier’s financial situation was getting worse. He and Lundy had split up and the money was tight. There was some question as to whether the team would need to be sold before season’s end.
If there was trouble brewing behind the scenes, the 1988 season started out spectacularly for the team. In what was one of the most emotional finishes in this sport’s history Bobby and Davey Allison finished 1-2 in that years Daytona 500, and celebrated together in victory lane. In light of all that has happened since, it seems beyond cruel that the memory loss Bobby Allison suffered in a terrible wreck deprives him of recalling that day, which he had called “the greatest day in my career.” Allison’s year would contain many stellar moments early that season, as well as some disappointment, but nothing could have prepared him for the nightmare at June’s Pocono race. On the very first lap Bobby Allison radioed his crew that he thought he had a tire going down, and told them to be ready to pit him. He never made it to pit lane. The tire blew and Bobby got sideways. The field was tightly packed and Jocko Maggiacomo had nowhere to go. He slammed Allison hard right in the drivers side numbers. Bobby was removed from the car with critical head and abdominal injuries as well as a shattered leg. He would never race again.
Racers are a different breed than you and I. Davey was not informed of his father’s condition though he must have seen in that wreckage Bobby was badly hurt. The team just radioed Bobby was alive and being taken to the hospital. Davey went on to finish fifth that day before rushing off to the LeHigh Medical center to join his family. There he was told of the true extent of his father’s injuries. The prognosis was bad. The doctors were not sure Bobby would ever emerge from the coma, and if he did they cautioned he might have irreparable brain damage. Bobby Allison had always made the decisions for the family. With his mother unable to make the decision, the full weight of a terrible choice fell on Davey’s slim shoulders. The doctors were asking if the family wished to have the life support removed from Bobby to let him pass away in peace. Davey took a long walk on the hospital grounds and finally came to his decision. Throughout his career, and in fact throughout his life, Bobby Allison had been a fighter who defied and beat the odds. The life support machinery would stay connected, and the family would pray to the God they trusted so deeply in to spare Bobby’s life.
There is no other term to call Bobby’s recovery by but hellish. It was more pain and confusion than any soul should know, and not all of the damage responded to therapy. He had to learn to walk and talk all over again. But Bobby Allison is still with us. Once again he defeated seemingly insurmountable odds.
While it was nothing like his father was facing, Davey had to deal with a lot of frustration and uncertainty in the months that followed. Ranier’s financial situation was growing worse. Robert Yates was throwing in his own money to keep the operation afloat. Wins at Michigan and Richmond helped improve the racing aspect of the season, but Ranier finally had no choice but to try to sell the team that fall. Harry gave Robert a chance to buy the team if he wished. Robert had to mortgage his home, sell his car, and much of what he owned to gather up the money. He was taking a terrible financial risk, but Yates decided to gamble his future because he believed so deeply that he had something special in Davey Allison, NASCAR’s next superstar. Davey kept encouraging Robert, promising together as a team they would make it work. Allison never forgot the risk that Yates took, and the trust his friend put in him. While he was approached more than once with offers of more money to switch teams, Davey always swore he would drive for Robert Yates for the rest of his career. The season ended well with a third at Phoenix and a second at Atlanta. Davey ended up eighth in points despite that midseason slump, having led 14 separate events that year.
The 1989 season would bring a new team to the table in Winston Cup racing. Robert Yates Racing was born.