TUNE IN: FS1’s film “Davey Lives On” airs July 11 at 6 p.m. ET on FS1.
The day that NASCAR Hall of Fame voters gather to cast their ballots is excruciating for the nominees and their families. They spend most of the day in a tug of war between hope and anxiety. They yearn for the affirmation that comes if they or their loved ones get elected. They fear the hollow depths of rejection if they don’t.
When voting day dawned this year, the candidacy of Davey Allison was in the spotlight. It was his second year on the ballot, and it was anybody’s guess whether he would make it this time. Davey’s loved ones — including his widow Liz, daughter Krista, son Robbie, sister Bonnie and father Bobby — wore anxiety like a second layer of skin. They had gotten their hopes up last year only to be disappointed. They didn’t want to experience that again.
The vote and the announcement are done on the same day in Charlotte, North Carolina. Liz and Robbie stayed in Nashville, Tennessee, where they live and work; a six-hour drive to Charlotte on a weekday was tough to pull off regardless, even more so without knowing the outcome of the vote. Krista lives in Dallas, making a trip to Charlotte even more difficult.
RELATED: Honoring Davey Allison
If the Hall of Fame invites Bobby, a member of the second class, to an event, he goes. He and Bonnie ran errands in Charlotte that morning and wondered what fate awaited them when they arrived at the Hall of Fame for the announcement.
“We had gotten different vibes from different people during the week. Some were saying he’s definitely going in and felt good about it,” Bonnie says. “Others were saying they didn’t know if it would be this year, it’d probably be next year.”
On statistics alone, Davey did not have a slam dunk Hall of Fame case. He drove full time for just five seasons and did not win a championship. In 191 starts at the Cup level, he won 19 races. But voters consider more than just raw data. They also consider elusive qualities like legacy, impact and other intangible factors that turn drivers into heroes. If “It Factor” is a criterion — and it surely is, even if it’s immeasurable and undefinable — Davey’s Hall of Fame candidacy gets transformed from borderline to likely. Few drivers in history have combined his skill on the track and appeal to fans.
“Davey was such a spectacular individual, personality wise, driving skill wise, mechanic wise,” says NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton. “He was truly a chip off the Bobby Allison block, just a tremendous personality for our sport, tremendous talent for our sport.”
Davey Allison, who died in a helicopter crash 25 years ago this week, combined a famous name with elite driving skills, winking charm and every-man work ethic. Bobby refused to coddle his son and instead insisted he learn the sport from the ground up. From an early age, Davey put in hundreds of hours sweeping the floor in his dad’s Hueytown, Alabama, race shop, organizing the parts and doing other menial tasks not usually associated with racing royalty.
That know-the-whole-car approach, mixed with competitive fire and accessibility, endeared Davey to fans. He believed that fans were the gas that powered his career. Without them, it would stall. More than most drivers, he sought out fan relationships. He stayed hours after races ended to sign autographs and called race tracks ahead of time to volunteer to help promote upcoming events.
“I want him to be remembered first and foremost as someone who loved his fans, and the fans adored him, and he adored them,” Liz says. “The history books will show what they need to show from a competitor’s standpoint. I care more about how much he loved his fan base. And that’s what I want people to remember. I don’t care about the wins. I don’t care about the Victory Lanes. I care about who he was as a person and what the fans gave him and what he gave back to them.”
Twenty-five years later, Davey remains one of the most fascinating, tragic and popular drivers in NASCAR history. In his short but electrifying career, he was part of some of the most memorable days in NASCAR history, up to and including the day NASCAR Hall of Fame voters decided his fate.
If they decided to vote him in, it would not just be because of what he did, but how he did it.
February 14, 1988
Finishes second to his father in the Daytona 500
For the final lap of the 1988 Daytona 500, CBS’s TV audience saw what Davey saw — his dad’s bumper. Davey, who was running in second, wanted more than anything to get to that bumper and zoom by it. He inched alongside but could not complete the pass. He settled for second to Bobby in perhaps the most famous 1-2 finish in NASCAR’s long history.
That one lap of chasing his father offers an apt summary of Davey’s entire racing life. On the race track, the single most important thing to know about Davey is this: He idolized Bobby. He considered his father the best driver of all time and wanted nothing more than to beat him, because if he beat the best, that meant he was pretty good, too.
WATCH: Relive 1988 Daytona 500
“I had the privilege of having a son that from the time he was a little bitty guy wanted to be with me and wanted to see what I was doing and wanted to know why,” Bobby once said. “As he got into this he would say, ‘Dad, how do I get better?’ In fact, one day he said to me, ‘Dad, I want to beat you.’ ”
Immediately after the 1988 Daytona 500, Davey experienced two conflicting emotions. He was happy for his dad, and he was deeply disappointed about finishing second to him. It’s tough to say which was more powerful.
“In Victory Lane that afternoon, Davey came in there, and he was so proud of his dad,” says Tommy Allison, Davey’s cousin, close friend and business manager. “But as he walked away, he went from that joy of celebration, then that walk back to the garage was long, and it probably wore on his mind, ‘What could I have done to be the one in there celebrating?’ “
Davey’s view of that day changed completely a few months later, after Bobby nearly died in a wreck in Pocono. Bobby had broken bones, internal injuries and severe head trauma. Bobby’s racing career was over, and he spent years recovering.
Davey’s two most powerful emotions immediately after the 1988 Daytona 500 were happiness for his dad and frustration for having finished second. After his dad’s injuries, Davey’s emotions about the race became pride and gratitude. That was his father’s final win, and he was honored to have finished second to him. It became his most joyful second-place finish and maybe the most joyful second-place finish any driver has ever had.
February 16, 1992
A stranger’s voice, a familiar place, win of a lifetime
The morning of the 1992 Daytona 500 should have been stressful for Davey. The team had tested repeatedly in an attempt to perfect its primary car, and he wrecked it during practice. His crew thrashed on the backup car for days to get it ready.
It was a good car, but not as good as the Robert Yates Racing team had fielded there in recent seasons. And yet when race day dawned, Davey was as loose as he usually was, which is to say, very. “He was always messing with the Cup officials,” Tommy Allison says. “That morning, on his way to the car, he must have goosed every one of them he snuck up on.”
Said Doug Yates, the son of team owner Robert Yates and CEO of Roush Yates Engines: “He always had that grin because you knew he was always up to something.”
He must have goosed every one of them he snuck up on.
When the race started, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott and Ernie Irvan were the class of the field. Davey was good but not as good as they were. Gatorade paid a $10,000 bonus to the leader at the midway point. All three of those cars wrecked trying to win that halfway cash. Davey avoided that crash and took the lead.
And then the race got weird.
A new and unknown voice suddenly came over the team’s radio. Tommy Allison looked around at the crew, figuring someone was accidentally keying the mike. But that wasn’t it. A “fan” had apparently stolen a radio earlier in the week and was now using it to warn Davey that second-place driver Morgan Shepherd was coming. Somehow that intrusion of his concentration didn’t faze Davey — nothing did, really, not wrecking his primary car, not some random fan talking to his radio, not even being hounded by a Shepherd for the final run of the race.
Davey took the lead for the final time on Lap 171 and said he spent 90 percent of each lap from then on with his eyes on his mirror, trying to figure out where Shepherd might go next.
Meanwhile, Liz watched the race on television in their motorhome in the infield. As the race wound down, anxiety and superstition unnerved her. She put their kids, Krista and Robbie, in a double stroller and went for a walk around the infield. “I didn’t want to be around anybody, I didn’t want to talk about it, I didn’t want anything to jinx it,” she says.
Every few minutes she stole a look at the scoring pylon, which called to her like runway lights call a plane home. Look after look, lap after lap, it said the same thing: Davey was leading. Shepherd was in second.
Finally, it was over. Davey first, Shepherd second. Liz could breathe again.
In Victory Lane all the people Davey was closest to were there to celebrate with him — Liz, Bobby, his mother Judy Allison, Krista, Robbie, Tommy and crew chief Larry McReynolds.
“It was like one of those moments where you felt like life is good,” Liz said. “Everybody that’s a part of what you worked so hard for is right here in Victory Lane with you, and you just won the Daytona 500. It was just one of those moments that you can’t really describe, but you know that it’s one of those big moments in life that you’ll never forget.”
Davey seemed almost stunned that he had won. “I’m just shaking all over,” he said at the time. “In about 30 minutes, I will probably collapse from disbelief.”
It was like one of those moments where you felt like life is good.
After the race, Bobby Allison — almost four years removed from his near fatal wreck at Pocono — joined his son in the press box. He beamed with pride as he sat next to a man he called one of the best drivers in the sport.
“I watched my dad win this race a couple times, and I followed him across the finish line a few years ago,” Davey said. “That day is such a special day, I don’t think that anything could ever replace it. But this is the best race I’ve ever won.”
July 12 and 13, 1993
A crash, a death, an outpouring of emotion
July 12, 1993, was a Monday, the day after the first-ever Cup race at Loudon, New Hampshire, which was the 191st and final of Davey’s career. He had a strong car, and if a late-race pit stop had gone better or if cautions had fallen differently, he could have won the race. Instead, he led 38 laps and finished third.
In a TV interview afterward, Davey congratulated winner Rusty Wallace and then said, “I’ve had some orders from home. I talked to Krista last night on the phone. She told me that if I don’t tell her ‘hey’ the next time I’m on TV, I’m in trouble when I get back. So, hey Krista — and Robbie and Liz.”
He flew home that night with McReynolds, who was one of his closest friends, and other members of the team. He drank a beer. He teased McReynolds.
The next morning, Davey and Liz discussed the day ahead. He asked her to make country-style venison, his favorite meal, for dinner. Liz said she had a meeting to attend in Anniston, Alabama. Davey said he had initially hoped to fly his helicopter to Talladega Superspeedway because David Bonnett, the son of his friend Neil Bonnett, was going to test there. But he had too much to do at the shop and couldn’t afford to sneak away.
Liz encouraged him to skip the test session and stay at the shop, not least because she hated the helicopter and had always hated it.
Davey went to Bill’s Farmhouse, a restaurant in Hueytown, for a weekly breakfast in which he and old timers from around town chewed over the previous weekend’s race. Liz drove to Anniston for her meeting. As she drove home, a helicopter flew overhead. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that looks like Davey’s helicopter, but he’s not flying,’ ” she said.
But Davey had changed his mind. After eating catfish fillet for lunch at The Iceberg Restaurant in Hueytown with Red Farmer, Davey drove to a helicopter pad at Bobby’s house. He and Farmer strapped into his blue and white Hughes 369HS turbojet chopper and took off.
After a 50-mile flight, Davey attempted to land in a parking lot near the track’s infield care center. The helicopter was about a foot from touching down, when suddenly it surged up to about 25 feet, spun counter clockwise, rolled and crashed.
Farmer described the crash as like being in a race car as it’s barrel rolling. “I could see the sun, I could see the ground, I could see the sky, I could see the dirt and asphalt, and everything was spinning and the helicopter was just going crazy and Davey was fighting the controls.”
Farmer said he braced himself for impact. Because Davey had his hands on the controls, he couldn’t prepare for the crash. “When it went down on the left side, he probably hit his head against the side of the helicopter. Then it flipped over and spun a couple of times and landed on my side. I hollered, ‘Davey! We gotta get out of here before it catches on fire!’ ”
Davey was unconscious. Farmer, who suffered a ruptured lung and broken ribs, collarbone and nose, kicked the glass out and tried to wriggle free but was stuck. Neil Bonnett ran up to the copter, pulled Farmer out and dragged him to safety. “I said, ‘Neil, go get Davey, because he’s unconscious,’ ” Farmer said. “He’s got to get out before it catches on fire.”
Ursula Smith, a medic who witnessed the crash, and Bonnett rushed back to the copter, where Davey was trapped. “At first I was in shock. Then my training kicked in,” Smith said. Bonnett lifted her up, and she cut Davey’s seat belt so he could be removed from the helicopter. “I’ve known Davey since he was a baby,” she said. “He’s like my baby.”
I’ve known Davey since he was a baby. He’s like my baby.
Davey and Farmer were taken to the track’s infield care center. From there, they were flown by helicopter to Birmingham’s Carraway Methodist Medical Center.
Inside the track office, Grant Lynch, then the general manager, now the track president, ran into the office of Mike Helton, who was then the president of the track and is now NASCAR’s vice chairman. The crash was scant minutes old and they didn’t know any details. Helton told Lynch, “I hope it’s not Davey.”
Once they found out it was, Helton told Lynch to go with Bonnett to the hospital while he stayed behind to manage the scene at the track. Lynch and Bonnett jumped into Lynch’s Chevy Blazer. Lynch told Bonnett, who won 18 races in 362 Cup starts and died seven months later in a crash at Daytona, to drive.
Yeah, I lost a race car driver that I’ve worked with, that I’ve enjoyed tons of success with. But I lost my best friend.
• • •
Liz got home, took off her sandals and ran into the kitchen without closing the front door behind her because she was going to leave again to pick up the kids, Krista, 3, and Robbie, 1.
Two guys from Davey’s shop walked in through the still open door. “The way they said, ‘Liz,’ I knew something was wrong,” she said. “They just said, ‘We need you to go with us, and we just need for you not to ask any questions.’ I could tell they had been crying, so I knew something was wrong.”
• • •
In Charlotte, Robert Yates called McReynolds into his office. Yates looked like he was in shock and told McReynolds that Davey was in trouble. The driver and crew chief were uncommonly close, and McReynolds wondered aloud what Davey had done or said. Davey was a fiery competitor, and he spouted off every now and then.
“He said, ‘no, no, no, no. It’s much worse than that,” McReynolds recalled. “ ‘He’s crashed that frickin’ helicopter.’ He said, ‘He’s alive. But it’s not good.’ ”
Fellow team owner Felix Sabates let Yates, McReynolds and their wives use his plane to fly to Birmingham. They landed and drove straight to the hospital, where Davey’s family and friends had gathered. Liz went back and forth between the waiting room and Davey’s room in the ICU. “I would go and talk to him and just hold his hand and pray,” Liz said. “We had his rosary and taped it to his heart and just did what families do in those situations: You cry, you pray, you yell, you blame, you do all that.”
She asked McReynolds if he wanted to go see Davey. He said no. He wanted his final memory of Davey to be of the two of them flying home together from New Hampshire the day before.
He wanted to remember Davey drinking a beer and teasing him, not dying on a hospital bed.
“If it would make a difference, I’d go,” McReynolds said. “But I knew they were just keeping him alive. He wasn’t living. The machines were keeping him alive.”
Early on July 13, 1993, a team of doctors approached Davey’s family and friends who had gathered at the hospital. There were so many they had to step out into the hall. The doctor in charge was blunt. “His words were, ‘He fought a good fight, but he’s dead.’ That was it,” Liz said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘How am I going to tell my children?’ And then my second thought was, ‘my poor mother-in-law.’ ”
Davey’s brother, Clifford, had died in a crash at Michigan International Speedway 11 months earlier. Judy Allison was next to Liz in the hospital. “She was on her knees sobbing,” Liz said.
The doctor asked Liz if she would consent to Davey becoming an organ donor. She huddled with Tommy Allison to discuss the idea.
“If you think he would, then just do it, Liz. He’s gone, but someone else is still here,” Tommy Allison said to Liz.
The two decided to donate Davey’s heart, liver and kidneys. They also could have donated his corneas, but Liz, in a decision she now regrets, could not imagine someone else having Davey’s eyes, so she said no to the corneas.
Those procedures started immediately. Davey’s heart went to a 54-year-old man, his liver to a 48-year-old woman, his left kidney to a 51-year-old man and his right kidney to a 46-year-old man. One of the kidneys went to California. The rest of the organs were transplanted in Alabama. While the liver recipient is still alive, the men who received Davey’s heart and kidneys have died. Collectively, those three lived 24 years after their transplants.
The first thing I thought was, ‘How am I going to tell my children?’
• • •
McReynolds says US Airways flew Robert Yates Racing team members from Charlotte to Birmingham for the funeral. The flight was christened No. 28, Davey’s car number.
The funeral drew a standing room only crowd of 750 to St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Bessemer, Alabama. Davey was a devout Catholic, and that was his home church. “It took every piece of fire and police apparatus from Hueytown and Bessemer to block off the two-mile route from the church to the Highland Memorial Gardens in Bessemer,” Peter Golenbock wrote in Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang.
Few, if any, drivers before or since have been as beloved in one place as Davey was in Alabama. “My most vivid memory is the people just lined up on the interstate with his 28 flags,” says Doug Yates. “That’s how much he meant to that town and to those people and to us. I can picture it right now. I can’t even express how much he meant and what kind of icon he was in a very short period of time.”
Robert Yates Racing skipped the race that weekend to grieve and figure out what to do next. That was the first Cup race without an Allison since Nov. 2, 1975, a span of more than 18 years. McReynolds considered quitting the sport. But then he thought of a conversation he had with Davey after Clifford died.
McReynolds had asked Davey if he wanted a substitute driver to replace him that weekend. “He stopped me in my tracks. He said, ‘Wait a minute. Let me tell you something. Yeah, I just lost my brother. And my heart is bleeding. But I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to do that job, and we’re going to win this damn race on Sunday, and we’ll go home Monday and we’ll take care of burying Clifford.’ That wasn’t just Davey. That was the Allison mentality.”
What would Davey want? McReynolds asked himself over and over. He knew the answer: “He would want us to move forward and go win races.”
So that’s what the No. 28 team did. McReynolds and crew returned to the race track two weeks later, at Talladega, with “Our Teammate Forever” painted on the car and Robby Gordon behind the wheel. Ernie Irvan became the full-time driver later that year, and he won two races in the No. 28 car that season.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of Davey Allison in some shape, form or fashion,” McReynolds said. “I was going through more emotions than I knew what to go through. Yeah, I lost a race car driver that I’ve worked with, that I’ve enjoyed tons of success with. But I lost my best friend. There’s no other person I was closer to, other than my wife, than Davey Allison.”
• • •
Then-NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. called Liz and invited her to a memorial service at Talladega that would be held before the Cup race there on July 25, less than two weeks after Davey’s death. “We would love for you to be there,” he told her, according to her retelling. “We understand if you can’t, but we would love for you to be there, and I would love for you to come and feel the love of the NASCAR family and to just to kind of feel that energy of the fans.”
Liz considered that a kind gesture but had no intention of going. The pain was too raw, too real, too omnipresent. She changed her mind late one night. “I just kind of felt Davey saying, ‘Man, those fans, they were my career. They made me who I am. They were my drive. They were the push. They were the passion behind everything that I did. You’re my wife, you have to go and speak to them.’ ”
NASCAR arranged to have Hal Marchman, a pastor from Daytona Beach who often gave invocations before races, to stand with Liz in case she faltered.
“You’re hoping she’s going to be able to get through it,” says Lynch, who was sitting nearby with Helton. “She walked up there, and she stood up, and she talked, and it was amazing. She just let it flow from her heart. Helton and I couldn’t look at each other. Lots of people couldn’t. I think it was what a lot of people needed. To have her say, she was going forward, we’ve got to go forward, it was one of the darnedest things I’ve ever seen.”
Before a crowd estimated at 100,000, Liz said, “the love and the support that all of the fans have shown to all of us has been overwhelming. There is no way we can ever thank each and every one of you for that love.”
May 23, 2018
A vote, a legacy, a life remembered
1992 was a tumultuous season for Davey Allison. For weeks, it seemed like he either wrecked or won. Then came the All-Star Race, and he managed to do both, as McReynolds put it. In the first NASCAR race run under the lights, he was injured in a crash as he took the checkered flag in a race known as “One Hot Night.” He was unconscious when safety workers got to his car. He was cut out of it by Jaws of Life and spent two days in the hospital.
Twenty-six years later, Eddie Gossage, a Hall of Fame voter who had been Bobby’s PR man and a friend of Davey, thought about that wreck as he pondered whom he would vote for this year. Gossage, Charlotte Motor Speedway’s vice president of public relations at the time, said Davey was supposed to speak at a dinner at the track that week. “During the reception he asked me to take him to my office because he was hurting so badly. He said every organ in his body was bruised from the crash. Everything inside of him bounced around on impact,” Gossage says.
Davey had “red/purple/green/blue/black bruises” on his shoulder and the weaved imprint of his seat belt on his hips. “He just laid on my couch groaning until it was time to speak,” Gossage says. “And then he walked in the room and delivered an upbeat, cheerful speech. You would never know he was hurting.”
RELATED: Toughness defined Davey on-track
For Winston Kelley, the executive director of the Hall of Fame and a voter, another moment from 1992 stands out. Davey entered the final race of the season with the points lead. But in one of the most famous season finales in NASCAR history, he crashed, lost the championship and finished third. “The thing I remember most about Davey, period, is how classy he was in defeat as well as in victory,” says Kelley, who interviewed Davey for Motor Racing Network after that race. “He treated people the same regardless.”
Because of stories like those two, Davey’s “It factor” Hall of Fame case was rock-solid, even if his stats were not. But would it be enough?
The voters discussed Davey’s candidacy and Alan Kulwicki’s candidacy together, which was fitting because their legacies are intertwined. It was Kulwicki who won the 1992 championship, and he died in a plane crash April 1, 1993, just months before Davey’s passing. Some voters appeared to consider their candidacies as either/or — they would vote for Kulwicki or Davey but not both, and whichever one made it this year, the other would make it the next. Someone spoke up and said there was no reason not to vote for both of them.
Votes were cast, the meeting broke up, and the announcement started. NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France read off the first three names — Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush and Roger Penske. Sitting next to her dad, Bonnie worried that Kulwicki would get in this year and Davey would have to wait until next year. When France said the next inductee had his life and career “tragically cut short,” Bonnie thought, he’s talking about Kulwicki.
But France wasn’t talking about Kulwicki. He looked directly at Bobby and said, “Davey Allison is in the Hall of Fame.”
Bobby and Bonnie smiled broadly and pumped their fists. “We were both in shock,” Bonnie says. “I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ Then people started patting us on the back and giving us high fives.”
Meanwhile, in her home Nashville, Liz Allison dropped to her knees and cried.
In her apartment in Dallas, Krista Allison Sheinfeld exulted in a spasm of “joy, pure joy.”
At his office in Nashville, Robbie Allison … carried on a normal work day, oblivious to what had just happened. He had shut off his phone and didn’t turn it back on for hours. “Finally I picked up my phone on the way out the door, and I had 600 text messages, and I was like, ‘My God, what happened?’ ”
He jumped on Facebook, and the first post he read said his father had been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “I’m like, ‘Great. I found out from Facebook,’ ” he said, half joking, half annoyed. “It’s probably not where you want to find out.”
RELATED: ‘He really is immortal’
Bobby and Davey are the fourth father and son combination elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. They join Ned and Dale Jarrett, Lee and Richard Petty and the two Bill Frances, Sr. and Jr.
“He always was the ideal son,” Bobby said. “I always said every father in the world would give a fortune to spend an hour with him, and I got to spend 24 hours with him daily.”
Afterward, Bonnie and Bobby drove to Bobby’s favorite restaurant — Big Daddy’s in Mooresville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte that is home to many members of the NASCAR community. On the way, they called Liz. She was still crying. For years she feared Davey would be forgotten. His Hall of Fame election guaranteed that he never would be.
Bonnie and Bobby walked into the restaurant still high on the events of the previous few hours. They accepted congratulations from patrons as they walked to their table.
They sat down and exhaled in relief.
And then they drank a toast to Davey.
Sources: Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Times, UPI, Sporting News, Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang, race broadcasts accessed via YouTube, interviews with participants.