NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Remembering Davey Allison, Part 1

Editor’s Note: July 13 marks 23 years to the day NASCAR lost a shining light, Davey Allison. Allison passed away shortly after crashing his helicopter at Talladega Superspeedway, an accident that also seriously injured good friend and racer Red Farmer. Matt McLaughlin looks back on the man who became the centerpiece of a famous racing bloodline, the Alabama Gang, in this two-part series on a driver who positioned himself to be the next great superstar before unexpected tragedy struck and took a life far too soon.

If there was ever a child born to be a race car driver, it was Davey Allison. If there was ever a racecar driver who never forgot his roots, always taking 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 Allison wanted to drive race cars since before he could say the word. His father Bobby was one of NASCAR’s greatest stars, 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 pickup 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.

However, Bobby Allison did not hand his son a racecar when Davey got to be of age to drive one. Instead, he was allowed to use the shop, given a job helping out so he could afford to build his car if he spent 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 the elder Allison anything when he was a young man. Building and wrenching on his own machine gave Davey a feel for how a racecar 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 where 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, all because he didn’t have the money to repair a car that was wrecked, proved 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 Allison’s career as well.

He became so consumed with his car and his racing, Allison’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 racetrack, the young driver was earning straight As.

After wheeling on short tracks around the Southeast, Davey Allison finally got his chance to drive a Cup car at 24 years old. Hoss Ellington, a top-tier car owner in the 1970s and ’80s, made a Chevy that had been driven by David Pearson available for Davey at the July race at Talladega Superspeedway. NASCAR was a bit hesitant about letting a rookie, any rookie, make his first Cup start on the circuit’s fastest speedway, a track where Bill Elliott took the pole for that year’s event at over 200 mph.Success was not long in coming, despite the low budget operation Allison managed with a few of his friends, along with occasional advice from his father. But that success was not enough. From his humble beginnings down in Alabama, Allison wanted to move up to the big leagues: Winston Cup.

(Photo: Motorsports Images & Archives
Davey Allison drove to a tenth-place finish in his very first Winston Cup start, proving to both the fans and media alike that he was the real deal (Photo: Motorsports Images & Archives)

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. Davey Allison drove to a 10th-place finish in his very first Winston Cup start, proving to both the fans and media alike that he was the real deal. All weekend, Allison was mobbed by reporters because of his last name. During the race on Sunday, he showed he was more than the son of a famous father.

Based on that strong performance, Allison earned two more rides with Ellington that season, never equaling that run but building a strong foundation for the future.

Allison’s first Winston Cup ride in 1986 came with the Sadler Brothers. At Darlington, his career took a nose-dive: Allison got involved in a 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 the young gun was just capitalizing on his last name, whether 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 diamond in the rough. When Neil Bonnett was injured at Pocono that July, Johnson asked Allison to step in and drive the highly regarded Budweiser No. 12 entry at Talladega the next week. If Johnson picking such an inexperienced driver didn’t raise some eyebrows, Allison’s strong seventh-place finish certainly did.

By that fall, Allison had achieved his goal. He had signed on with Harry Ranier and J.T. Lundy for a (mostly) full-time ride in 1987.

There were a lot of questions going into the 1987 season. The team had lost its driver, Cale Yarborough, and its sponsor, Hardee’s. Crew chief Waddell Wilson had jumped ship as well, while 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 potential: Allison 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 his talent, but also made some rookie mistakes.

A ninth place after winning the pole at the second event of the season at Rockingham Speedway was followed by a crash at Richmond International Raceway. A strong fifth at Atlanta Motor Speedway was followed by a savage crash at Darlington Raceway. Ironically enough, Allison wrecked and spun into the path of his father, eliminating the elder Allison as well. Davey’s car was engulfed in flames, and he had to crawl out of the wreckage quickly to avoid being badly burned. It was downhill from there, with Allison missing the next three events.

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. However, the two Allisons 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 catchfence that separated the grandstands from the track.

Davey, who saw the whole wreck unfold in his rear-view mirror, had a long time to stew over what had happened during the ensuing two-and-a-half-hour red flag period to repair the damage. Still, when the racing resumed, Allison not only returned to the track, he also headed for the front. Late in the going, he passed no less a driver than Dale Earnhardt to take the lead, then 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 event held at Talladega. Of course, racing is a roller coaster sport: the next race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he lost an engine. But the race after, at Dover International Speedway, Allison won yet again after a spirited battle with his dad, who wound up blowing a motor of his own.

From there, a year of ups and downs continued, though there were more ups than downs. While Allison didn’t win any more races, he did finish a close second three times – to Dale Earnhardt at Michigan, Bill Elliott at Talladega and to Ricky Rudd at Dover, not bad company to put yourself in as a rookie. Clearly, 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. Naturally, he earned rookie of the year honors, while 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, making the money tighter than ever. There was some question as to whether the team would need to be sold before season’s end.

But even 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 year’s Daytona 500, celebrating 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 those moments, which he had called “the greatest day in my career.”

Davey 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. But 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, slamming Allison hard right in the driver’s 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, however. Davey was not informed of his father’s condition, though he must have seen in that wreckage Bobby was badly hurt. The team only that 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.

Only then was he 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 call, 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 the trauma his father was facing, Allison had to deal with a lot of frustration and uncertainty in the months that followed. Ranier’s financial situation was growing worse, while 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 and tried to sell the team that fall.

Ranier gave Yates a chance to buy the team if he wished. Yates 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.

Allison kept encouraging Yates, promising together as a team they would make it work. Allison never forgot the risk that Yates took, the trust his friend put in him. While he was approached more than once with offers of more money to switch teams, Allison always swore he would drive for Robert Yates for the rest of his career. As the sale was completed, the season ended well, with a third at Phoenix International Raceway and a second at Atlanta. Allison ended up eighth in points despite that midseason slump, having led 14 separate events that year.

But for this duo, the best was yet to come. The 1989 season would bring a new team to the table in Winston Cup competition: Robert Yates Racing was born, with Allison firmly at the controls.

Part two will be posted tomorrow.

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24 Comments
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kb

Thank you…wonderful…look forward to the rest.

GinaV24

Matt, thanks for remembering Davey.

messengerfm

Of course you do. Along with your shrine to Alan Kulwicki. You have a fetish for overrated dead drivers.

messengerfm

Gina, if Jeff dies soon enough, Matt will build a shrine to him too.

Bill B

What is your problem dude? The bug up your ass has a bug up it’s ass.

spot1

Guess some people just have to be assholes. What is your problem, though? Your welfare check get lost in the mail? Your mommy screw up breakfast today?

Tony Geinzer

I could remember Davey Allison’s Loss like Yesterday, I was 8 Years Old Then and it tore my year inside out, counting the Floods of 1993 and the Ruins of the Ruan leaving no IMSA or Trans Am by 2007. Unfortunately, it tore up other people’s years and I am still baffled the 28 was the Team and not able to win a tangible season championship in Motorsports, like other Star Cars.

messengerfm

Do you ever write about living people, Matt? Or are you so stuck in the past that only nostalgia moves you at all anymore? Arguably the greatest sportswriter of all time was Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times. Not only did he have encyclopedic knowledge of every sport he wrote about (which was all of them), he could write about any topic in a way that made it fascinating even to non-fans.

As he aged and lost his eyesight, he never retreated into the past. He appreciated the brilliance taking place right in front of him, even if he had trouble actually seeing it. No one will ever mistake you for him, but the fact you are old does not justify living in 1990. Yada, yada, yada. Allison was a loss to the sport. But he did cause his own death by hot-dogging in a copter he had just learned to fly. And whatever he coulda, woulda, shoulda accomplished lives only in your fantasies. What he did accomplish was….just not that much.

And also please lose the flag. It is shameful and the mark of a traitor and supporter of slavery. I suppose you keep it with your swastika.

messengerfm

See you responded. Didn’t read it. You are the troll here.

Jose Jiminez

How does someone get to be as mean as you obviously are ? You are for lack of a better term, a tool. Now off to anger management with you and try not to be late as you can’t afford to miss even a second of therapy.

Richie

I was at Talladega the day the Allisons nearly, literally brought the house down! I’ll never forget witnessing that history being made (or the long delay getting the catch fence repaired in the Alabama heat). The helicopter accident was a “day the music died” event in my life that I look back on sadly every time I am reminded of Davey. The future that kid had was so bright and he is sorely missed. Thanks Matt for the tribute to Davey.

Mike

Thanks, Matt. Like others I remember it like it was yesterday…

broken back

July 13, the day Freddie Mercury became a Rock God without equal. And the day another arrogant NASCAR driver caused his own death by his hubris and incompetence.

I will grant that In those days, fans had actual favorites they cheered for. That is no longer the case. With the exception of a few fan favorites like Joonyer (aka Booger Boy) and Tony the Killer, fans expend more energy on the drivers they HATE than any they pretend to cheer for. While there are many reasons for NASCAR’s demise, the deterioration of the fan base into a bunch of hate-mongers has to be considered.

Read the comments after any race on any forum, including those sanctioned by NASCAR itself. What you will see is negative comments exceeding positive by roughly 10 to 1. Of course, part of it is the obvious manipulation of the outcome by NASCAR which, for example, handed Brad Kez a win he did not deserve Saturday, but most of it is due to the animus of the fans. And that animus is fueled by writers like Matt McLaughlin and PattyKay Lilley, who believe only the old and the dead are worth our admiration. Plus ignoramuses like Amy Henderson who cheer for so-called underdogs like Ryan Blaney to cause wrecks that take out legitimate contenders.

NASCAR is on the fast track to hell and I, for one, am glad to see the end of this phony “sport” which pays homage to thieves and crooks and expends hatred on today’s infinitely superior drivers to the old-timers who lived and died by cheating alone.

broken back

Yeah, I’m still Sue and I sill hate you and your obsessive love of your dead heroes. Allison died by his own hand. He was no hero; he was a hotdog who deserved what he go,

broken back

what he got – death!

spot1

And you, buttf*ck, are one sorry-assed excuse for human waste.

DoninAjax

Looks like it’s a good thing you didn’t mention Rob Moroso.

Bill B

No broken back, it’s not NASCAR that causes all the negativity, it’ the anonymity of the internet and social media. People vent their frustrations, say things they probably would phrase more diplomatically in person, and generally have a forum to whine about everything they perceive as an injustice. And the best part, it takes very little effort (25 years ago you’d have to write a letter, mail it to the editorial section of the newspaper and if it was too nasty it would never be printed). It’s promoted bad behavior among all of us. Been there, done that, many times (and usually regret it but, I get it, political correctness sucks).

Go to almost any comments section on any article with any subject (sports, news, especially politics, and even something as inane as the new Ghostbusters movie) and, chances are, you will see the same type of negativity.

Now, speaking of the internet promoting bad behavior, would you go up to anyone you know who lost a loved one for any reason (even something like they died because they were driving drunk), and tell them to their face that their loved one got what they deserved, death? If so, you must be a real hardass and, in a way, I could at least respect you for your consistency.

broken back

The difference, Mattie, was that Freddie was a legend when he died and Davey was a moderately talented kid with some promise but no results. And yes, he DID deserve to die that day, just as Dale Sr. deserved to die at Daytona. Both were guilty of gross stupidity and arrogance and got what they deserved. And Kulwicki could have delayed his flight into Bristol, but again hubris ruled and he chose to risk death rather than arrive late. They ALL got what they deserved.

And yeah, Queen had a huge advantage at Wembley – they were BETTER than anybody else. And they also practiced for the event, which most of the other acts didn’t bother to do. So they, too, got what they deserved, the biggest fan response and place in the history of rock music, your hick music opinion notwithstanding.

And no matter who you happen to hook on with as a “commenter,” you will never be more than a hack writer with a man crush on your favorites. After all these years, you write no better or with any more insight than an 18-year-old with a blog. THAT is you legacy, you pathetic failure!

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