Editor’s Note: July 13 marks 25 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 racer 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 race car 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 race car and its chassis operated, 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 1980s, 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.
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 nosedive: 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 that year, 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 rollercoaster 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 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, a race 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 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 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 and 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 the rest of his career.
As the sale was completed, the 1988 season ended well, with a third at Phoenix International Raceway and a second at Atlanta. Allison ended up eighth in points despite a 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.