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Talladega ties still run deep with immortal 'Alabama Gang'

Alabama Gang

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BESSEMER, Ala. -- In the beginning, there was Bobby and Donnie and Red.

They were the Alabama Gang.

Bobby Allison. Donnie Allison. And Charles "Red" Farmer. Three racers from South Florida who, as the 1950s ended and the '60s began, picked up stakes and relocated to little-known Hueytown, Alabama, in search of bigger race purses and infinitely more opportunities.

Across much of the southeastern United States, local tracks were prime entertainment for folks in towns and cities such as Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville. And a driver with good equipment, enough talent, and a bit of luck, could make anywhere from two to three shows a week.

You don't win bigger purses, of course, unless you run exceptionally well but that was never a problem for the Allisons or Farmer. In fact, they won so often on the region’s short tracks that other drivers quickly began to lament their arrival.

It's a hard thing to pin down exactly when the Alabama Gang moniker first surfaced, and there are numerous versions of the story. But a similar thread runs through each -- whenever and wherever the trio arrived, the quality of the competition increased dramatically.

"It was years before I heard the story behind it," former crew chief Larry McReynolds said. "I guess they kind of all traveled together in a caravan and would go to these different short tracks. They went somewhere, I don’t even remember where it was, and they all … Bobby, Donnie, Red, I think even Neil (Bonnett) -- three or four of them pulled in and somebody said, 'Well hell, here comes that damn Alabama Gang.' It just stuck and they kind of picked it up and ran with it."

Bonnett, the former pipefitter who grew up in the area, joined the fold in the early '70s, and got his break only after working as a volunteer at the Allison's race shop in Hueytown.

"I told him I didn't have money to pay him but what could I do for him," Bobby Allison said of Bonnett. "He said, 'let me drive one of your short track cars in a race or two.' I said, 'Tomorrow night is the night.'"

Allison, whose NASCAR career was picking up steam, continued to compete in as many local shows as his schedule would allow. And as luck would have it, he was scheduled to run in two races in two different states the following night.

"I promised I would race at Maryville, Tennessee, and I was committed to race at a short track in Virginia," Allison said. "So I gave him the car for Maryville and I went north the other direction."

According to Allison, Bonnett won his race, at Smoky Mountain Raceway, "and that’s really when he became a member of the Alabama Gang. 

"He ran the car for me 64 times over the following year and won 61 of those races on short tracks all around Alabama," Allison said.

Eventually they all competed at NASCAR's top level, what's known today as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, with varying degrees of success. Bobby Allison's star rose the highest, reaching its zenith when he won the series' championship in 1983 and culminating with 84 career wins and a much-deserved place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A crash at Pocono Raceway in 1988 nearly took his life, and ended Allison's racing career.

Donnie, every bit as successful in those early years, won 10 times as a NASCAR regular while often running a limited schedule. Injuries suffered in a hard crash at Charlotte in 1981 eventually ended his career behind the wheel as well, seeing him make just 13 more starts over the course of seven years.

At 84, Farmer is the only one of the original Alabama Gang members still competing, and can often be found racing at nearby Talladega Short Track.

Bonnett had 18 career wins when he was injured in a crash at Darlington Raceway in 1990. After a brief but successful stint in the television booth, he returned to competition in 1994 only to die when his car hit the wall at Daytona during practice for that season's Daytona 500.

• • •

It’s a gray, rainy day and the sounds of afternoon traffic rolling across interstate can be heard here -- the thump-thump-thump of 18-wheelers and the hum of cars and pickups and SUVs headed northeast toward Birmingham or southwest toward Tuscaloosa.

The rain comes and goes but the traffic is constant, quickly moving past Bessemer and nearby Hueytown and yes, here at Highland Memorial Gardens too.

Back in the corner of the cemetery, midway across the section named "Garden of Everlasting Life," is the plaque, centered on a piece of granite. Coins rest atop the marker. Two dimes, a nickel and three pennies here, a quarter and three pennies there. Twenty-eight cents. Always 28 cents. Twenty-eight, the car number of David Carl "Davey" Allison.

Nearby, although not in the same section, is the grave of Davey's younger brother Clifford. Another Allison, another second-generation member of the Alabama Gang. Another racer who could seemingly outrun everything except fate.

• • •

Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Supespeedway (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a homecoming for McReynolds, a native of Birmingham. As a youngster, McReynolds would often walk to nearby Birmingham International Raceway with his aunt and her husband to watch the weekly shows. Later, he convinced his father to take him to Talladega, to the "big track."

McReynolds won 23 times as a crew chief in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, including 11 times with Davey Allison. One of those, in 1992, came just down the road at Talladega.

"Even though I’ve been gone 37 years it’s still my home track," said McReynolds, now an analyst for NASCAR on FOX. "And I guess to finally win there as a crew chief with Davey in '92 -- Davey would start talking about Talladega a month out. He loved that place and obviously had a huge fan following there. And of course he won there three times; he won his first race there in '87 as a rookie.

RELATED: Recalling Allison's first win at Talladega

"But it was pretty special to be able to go to Victory Lane. … Almost 20 years earlier, I'm sitting in the grandstands with my dad and I asked if we could sit somewhere where I could see the garage area on race morning, and where I could see the pits, that's what I really wanted to see because that's what intrigued me. To know 18-19 years later I actually was the crew chief of the car that won the race and of all people to do it with, Davey Allison, and I guess that's what was even much cooler, 20 years after that, for my son Brandon, who is Davey's godson, to win the ARCA race there.

"So to know what all happened in that 40-year span, almost in 20-year increments, is pretty unbelievable."

• • •

Hueytown once hummed with racing activity, home to the Allisons and Farmer and Bonnett and their families and extended families and when they won, the people of Hueytown won, too.

Today? Today the clouds hang low and the rain starts and stops and out on the interstate the traffic is constant. Shops and storefronts have that slightly-used look, some no doubt repurposed for yet another shot at one business venture or another.

There are roads and highways in the area bearing their names but the Alabama Gang is more memory than reality around here these days.

Members of the next generation of the Alabama Gang, either by birthright or birthplace, have come and gone.

Davey Allison, winner of 19 races and a runner-up finish to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500, died from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega just five years later. He was 32.

Clifford, two years younger, was killed when he crashed during practice in 1992 at Michigan International Speedway.

Hut Stricklin and Mickey Gibbs and David Bonnett. Guys that had the ties but not the good fortune.

• • •

In the beginning, there was Bobby, Donnie and Red.

They were, and will always will be known, as the Alabama Gang.

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