NASCAR driver Davey Allison remembered for spirit, unfulfilled potential years after sudden death

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DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 14, 1988: Bobby Allison and son Davey celebrate the elder AllisonÕs victory in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Bobby and Davey crossed the finish line in first and second positions. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – To Kyle Petty, Davey Allison was just “Davey.”

Davey Allison, from Hueytown, Ala., lifts his arms in the air during ceremonies in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 auto race Sunday afternoon, February 16,1992, at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Florida. Allison edged out Morgan Shephard to win his first 500. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky))

Beyond NASCAR or the storied “Alabama Gang,” Petty remembers a simpler time with the Hueytown native, when the two were children. Petty and Allison spent their summers in the 1960s and 1970s following their racecar driver fathers across the country, dreaming of following in their tracks.

When NASCAR fans reflect on Davey Allison’s career, they remember the racing legend for being one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers, for his 1992 Daytona 500 win, and for the exceptional talent he displayed while behind the wheel of his No. 28 Texaco-Havoline Ford.

But when Petty looks back, he’ll always remember Davey as the boy who was brave enough to jump off the high dive at the Sea Dip Motel in Daytona Beach, Florida; the boy who would sneak into his father’s pit while the crew wasn’t looking; the boy who would accompany Petty down the Daytona Beach boardwalk to get a Coke and a slice of pizza.

Throughout the many times they would face each other on the track, Davey was Petty’s friend first—and competition second.

“He became a racecar driver, but he was just always Davey to me,” said Petty, a former driver and current NASCAR commentator for NBC Sports.

Davey Allison, who would have turned 60 years old Thursday, was only 32 when he died following a helicopter crash in the infield of the Talladega Superspeedway. His death was met with widespread mourning in the NASCAR community, as the gifted young driver’s premature death cut short a career that was just starting to take off.

“Davey was a heck of a friend,” NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt told Newsday shortly after Allison’s death. “It’s tough to describe the emotions. I want Davey back.”

Despite being gone nearly as long as he was alive, Allison remains a constant presence for the friends and family who were closest to him, many of whom still feel the sting of his death nearly 30 years later.

From the starting line

Davey Allison knew he wanted to be a driver, even before he could talk.

RICHMOND, VA — March 7, 1993: Bobby Allison (L) joins his son, Davey Allison, in victory lane at Richmond International Raceway after Davey won the Pontiac Excitement 400 NASCAR Cup race. It would be the younger Allison’s final Cup victory. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

By the time Davey born in 1961, his father, Bobby Allison, was already making a name for himself in racing. In search of better race tracks and prize money, Bobby moved his family from Miami to Hueytown in 1959. Within a couple of years of success on the short track circuit, Bobby, and other drivers known as the “Alabama Gang,” were catching attention. Eventually, they made their way to the big leagues: NASCAR.

Davey was just a few months old when he began mimicking the sounds of a car engine from his homemade car seat—all while seated next to Dad. The obsession with racing would only intensify.

“He grew up, and he wanted to be around me and the racecar all the time,” Bobby Allison recalled.

Red Farmer, a member of the “Alabama Gang” and NASCAR Hall of Famer who worked as a crew chief for Davey, lived next door to the Allisons. He’d followed Bobby and his brother, Donnie, to Alabama to find better racing opportunities. Farmer remembers how even as boys, Davey and his brother, Clifford, would race each other around their father’s garage on tricycles before graduating to bicycles and go-karts.

“They were always racing each other all around the place and up and down the street,” Farmer recalled.

Bobby Allison said that while a young Clifford was more interested in hanging out with his friends than in racing, Davey was always determined to get into the family business.

“He wanted to be where I was,” he said.

Davey’s commitment to racing was so strong that he took summer school classes in order to graduate early. In 1979, he and a group of friends affectionately called “The Peach Fuzz Gang” got their start at tracks like the Birmingham International Raceway, the Montgomery Motor Speedway, and other tracks across the Southeast. Driven to excel in the sport, they’d often make trips on the weekends.

“Bobby gave him an ‘in’ into racing, but Bobby didn’t do it for him,” said Clyde Bolton, former sportswriter for The Birmingham News who started covering racing for the newspaper in 1962. “Davey had to make it work himself.”

TALLADEGA, AL – MAY 3, 1992: Davey Allison guided the Robert Yates Ford to a win in the 1992 Winston 500 at Talladega. Allison’s victory ran Ford’s winning streak to 13 races, including the final four of the ’91 season. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

Greg Campbell, a member of the “Peach Fuzz Gang” who eventually worked on Davey’s crew, said those early days traveling with Davey were some of the best they spent together.

“It was pretty adventurous,” Campbell said. “When you’re kids, all you thought about was racing.”

“Hut” Stricklin first met Davey in the mid-1970s, both racing at the Birmingham International Raceway (BIR) with dreams of one day making it as racecar drivers. However, what set Davey apart from other his age was his knowledge of cars.

“He could build and make anything he could with his hands–good bodies and stuff with cars,” Stricklin said. “He could build his own chassis if need be.”

By 1983, Davey Allison was already a fan favorite at BIR and had won two Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) races at the Talladega Superspeedway. He was named ARCA Rookie of the Year the following year. In 1985, Allison got one of his first big breaks in racing when he was asked by Hoss Ellington to drive a NASCAR Winston Cup Series car in the Talladega 500, finishing 10th in his first start for the Winston Cup. In 1987, Allison was selected to replace Cale Yarborough for the Ranier-Lundy racing team, going on to win his first Winston Cup, the first rookie since 1981 to do so.

From there, Allison continued winning races.

“That was a big moment to get in that car,” Petty said. “What Davey did was maximize that moment.”

One hot night in Charleston

Liz Allison thought August 29, 1988 would be the longest night of her life. Instead, that hot night during the Tiny Lund Memorial race at the Summerville Speedway would actually be one that changed her life.

“I was sitting on the back of a pickup truck, not even sure why I was there and wondering when in the world it would be over, so I could get back to my air-conditioned apartment…” she said.

Before she’d had enough of the “steaming hot” weather, Davey Allison walked up to her, decked head to toe in his black Texaco uniform. Davey, who had just gone through a divorce, asked her one of the most forward questions she had ever been asked.

“He literally said ‘Are you married,’” she said. “There wasn’t a ‘What’s your name’ or anything. It was ‘Are you married?’ and I said ‘No.’”

Their initial meeting was no longer than 15 minutes. After that, Davey asked her to hold onto his hat as he ran off to the pit to get ready for the race. After finishing, he walked back to Liz to retrieve his hat, as well as her phone number.

By that Sunday, not long after finishing at Darlington Raceway, Davey gave her a call.

“He was unlike anyone I had ever been attracted to,” she said.

The two were married less than a year later and had two children, Robbie and Krista.

Giving back to the fans

Liz Allison describes the fan appeal of her late husband like this: the guys wanted to have a beer with him, the girls wanted to go out on a date with him, mamas wanted to take him. To Liz, that just about sums up his special ability to connect with anyone.

This is an undated file of stock car driver Davey Allison who died Tuesday morning of injuries he suffered when a helicopter he was piloting crashed in the infield at Talladega Super speedway Monday, July 12, 1993. (AP Photo)

Even after his death, his fans never stopped caring about him or reflecting on his legacy. At least once a week, Liz hears from someone about how they grew up watching Davey race and how much he meant to them.

“Davey just had that gift of really bringing people into his space in a way that they felt like they truly belonged,” she said. “When people feel like the belong in someone else’s space, it feels good, and they want to be a part of that.”

Campbell remembers one day in 1989 when Allison and the team were meant to make a stop at a Texaco station in Jackson, Mississippi to meet with fans and sign autographs. Upon arriving in the parking lot, Campbell remembers seeing crowds of people circling the building.

Undeterred, Allison spent four hours meeting with fans, signing autographs, and taking pictures with them.

“I just think that like an Earnhardt, they can relate to a person like Davey,” Campbell said. “They thought ‘Maybe that could be me. Maybe I could do that.’”

Petty feels one aspect of Allison’s large fanbase was the fact that he hailed from a racing family and contributed to its prominence in the sport.

“Race fans could relate to Davey, because they watched him grow up in the sport. They watched him grow up in Victory Lane beside his dad, “Petty said. “They could go back and take pictures of Bobby Allison in 1966 in Victory Lane, and there is little Davey Allison standing right beside him.”

Tragedy early on

The Allisons faced the first of several tragedies in 1992.

Clifford Allison

On August 13, 1992, Clifford Allison was killed when his car crashed during a practice for the NASCAR Busch Series at the Michigan International Speedway. Clifford’s death came only months after Bobby Allison’s father, Jacob “Pop” Allison, had died.

Clifford’s widow, Elisa Allison Sproule, couldn’t bring herself to talk about her husband’s death for 25 years.

“When I went out, I had to hold my head up and pretend that everything was alright,” she said. “I was crumbling on the inside.”

However, in the wake of his death, Elisa took comfort in her brother-in-law, who was also her confidant. After his brother’s death, Davey helped looked after Elisa and her children, keeping her on his team until his death.

“He was one I could talk to, and I didn’t have to hide what I was going through,” she said.

Following Clifford’s death, Davey became more spiritual and reprioritized his family, Liz said.

“It impacted him in so many ways,” she said. “To lose your brother is an eyeopener.”

However, grief would continue to stay with the Allisons 11 months later.

‘Too many damn heartaches’

The year before his death was the hardest one for Liz and Davey. Between losing Clifford, a bad wreck at the Pocono Raceway, and another in Charlotte, it seemed Davey was in the hospital as much as he was in Victory Lane. It was during this time that Liz became afraid for him.

“I became so consumed with the fear of him losing his life that I couldn’t enjoy life,” she said. “I wanted him to retire. I didn’t want him to race after Pocono and Charlotte. The whole year was just really difficult and was just constant reminders of the dangers of the sport.”

TALLADEGA, AL – JULY 1988: Davey Allison listens to veteran driver Red Farmer in the garage area at the Alabama International Motor Speedway prior to the running of the Talladega DieHard 500 NASCAR Cup race. Farmer was a mentor for the young driver during his career and also served as Allison’s crew chief on his NASCAR Busch Grand National Series cars. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

On July 12, 1993, Allison and his crew were eating lunch at The Iceberg in Hueytown when Davey asked Farmer to go in his new helicopter to fly out to Talladega to driver Neil Bonnett and his son, David, drive a few practice laps around the racetrack. Farmer was reluctant.

“I was against Davey when he bought that damn helicopter,” he said. “I had told him before that if something goes wrong with that thing, it don’t glide like an airplane; it comes down like a rock.”

Eventually, Allison convinced Farmer to fly with him. In no time, they were up and on their way to Talladega. However, landing the helicopter would prove disastrous when only a few feet from the ground, the helicopter shot up and went sideways, crashing down to the ground with the engine still running.

“What saved me was I could brace myself and I braced myself with my hands on the side of the dome, but Davey couldn’t,” Farmer said. “He was still trying to fly that thing and control it while I was bracing myself.”

Bonnett and others came to pull Farmer and Allison out of the wreck. They were eventually flown to Carraway Methodist Medical Hospital in Birmingham. While Farmer only suffered a broken collarbone and fractured ribs, Allison arrived at the hospital unconscious, suffering from a broken pelvis, injured lung and serious head injury.

Allison never regained consciousness and died the next day on July 13, 1993.

Strickin said he was originally supposed to be in that helicopter. The Saturday before the crash, he and Davey had talked about flying to Talladega to watch Bonnett practice. That same day, Strickin had a race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but ended his run early due to food poisoning and dehydration, requiring him to stay in the hospital through the weekend. That Monday, he flew back home to Calera, where he saw the news reports of Davey’s crash.

NASCAR driver Davey Allison sits in his car as it is checked after a practice run Friday, November 13, 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He is preparing for Sunday’s Hooter’s 500 race, which is last race of the season. Allison is point leader for the Winston Cup Championship. (AP Photo/Curtis Compton)

“I lost my best friend that day,” Stricklin said.

Nearly 28 years later, Farmer still gets misty-eyed talking about losing Davey, whom he treated like a second son.

“I try to forget it, to be honest with you,” Farmer says after a long pause. “It just brings back too many damn heartaches when I think about it.”

What could have been

For many who have talked and written about Davey Allison over the years, the most tragic aspect of the young driver’s untimely death was his unfulfilled potential.

“After Bobby got hurt, Davey was the new leader of the ‘Alabama Gang’ and he was with a team that could win at any given time,” Stricklin said. “Anyone that knew him knew he was such a good role model to the kids. Every kid wanted to be like him.”

While people like Farmer believe Davey could’ve easily had more cup wins than drivers like Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, Petty said it’s difficult to imagine what Allison’s future would’ve looked like.

Davey Allison’s grave at Highland Memorial Gardens in Bessemer.

“We all sit and drive ourselves crazy thinking about what could’ve been and what we didn’t get to see when, in essence, we need to find joy and celebrate what we had, because that’s all we’re ever going to have,” he said. “When I look at Davey, I look at how at the time he was here, the competition he ran against, and at the things he did. You look at it and you think ‘Man, he was there. He was the guy. He could have won a championship. He could have done this in his time.’ He never had an opportunity past that, but he could’ve and you just believe that.”

Bobby Allison believes Davey could have gone on to win more championships and continue to make a name for himself.

“He had the right demeanor, the right kind of personal commitment,” he said. “He did whatever it took to help the program.”

In the years since his death, Davey Allison’s legacy has continued on, having being inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019 and named to the newest inductee class of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America earlier this month. Petty believes the accolades continue in recognition of Allison’s incomplete legacy.

“It’s the longing for what he never had, and there’s so many people like that,” he said. “We mourn [Dale] Earnhardt in passing, but he was on the backside of his career…”

Remembering the good times

In many NASCAR circles, fans still talk about May 16, 1992: “One Hot Night,” the Winston race where Allison came out ahead of Dale Earnhardt and Petty in the last lap to barely win, spinning into the wall shortly after crossing the finish line.

Petty said that was a great example of how Davey never gave up.

“All these years later, people talk about it as the most spectacular thing they’ve ever seen, but that’s not the way you want to end a race,” he said. “When you look at the race in its totality, we were the three best cars. Davey and Dale and myself and one of us needed to win that race, and Davey won it.”

One of Bobby Allison’s favorite moments with his son is one he can’t actually remember. It’s from the 1988 Daytona 500, where he won and Davey came in second place. However, due to an accident later that year at the Miller High Life 500 in Pocono, Allison cannot remember the race. However, he keeps a picture of him and his son in Victory Lane to treasure the moment.

“It was really special,” he said.

Bolton said that Daytona race may have been his favorite race to cover in his entire career.

“Davey said he had dreamed about that, but it was the other way around,” Bolton laughed.

For Liz, the sting of Davey’s death has dulled over the years, but it has never left. Despite the grief, she is now able to openly reflect on her late husband.

Liz Allison holds up a checkered flag won by her late husband Davey Allison, for his victory in the 1992 Daytona 500, at her home in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 9, 2006.(AP Photo/John Russell)

“We grieve and we try to move on to that next season of our life and that next chapter, and that’s what we do,” she said. “But Davey is always with us, and that’s a good thing. We always want him to be a part of everything we do.”

When Davey died, Liz admittedly did not give herself any time to grieve, eventually moving away from Hueytown to Nashville with her children.

“Wherever you are, grief will catch you,” she said. “It will catch you at different times, but it will eventually knock you to your knees, and that’s what happened to me.”

Eventually, Liz sought counseling. She even wrote a book, “Davey Allison: A Celebration of Life,” decorated with touching photos from Allison family albums over the years. While it remains painful to dwell on his passing, Liz chooses to remember, first and foremost, the good times.

“I was so blessed to be his wife and to be able to experience life with him, even though it was not very long,” she said. “We have two amazing adult children now. Everything that we had and the time together was a blessing.”

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