Two years ago this week Davey Allison turned to a journalist acquaintance of his and said, in a calm and thoughtful manner, "If I get killed in a race car, I'm gonna die with a smile on my face." That statement summed up his family's acceptance of what it calls the "occupational hazard" of stock car racing. But Davey Allison was not granted that kind of end. After a horrific collapse of fortune, the Allisons of Hueytown, Ala., are now, surely, the most tragic family in American motor racing.
Davey Allison, 32, died on July 13 of massive head injuries he had sustained 16 hours earlier in the crash of a helicopter he was piloting; he was attempting to land in a parking lot in the infield of Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. That his NASCAR career had seemingly not yet peaked—he had 19 Winston Cup Series wins, including the 1992 Daytona 500—was just one of the reasons the nation's racers and fans were so shocked by his death. That he, above all other NASCAR drivers, delighted and influenced children and teenagers with his warm personality and devout life was another reason for mourning.
Davey was the second of the two sons of former NASCAR star Bobby Allison to die in an accident in the space of 11 months. Last August, Clifford Allison, 27, was killed in a stock car crash during practice at the Michigan International Speedway. The deaths of Bobby Allison's sons came as Bobby, 55, was continuing his own agonizing recovery from a near-fatal, career-ending brain injury suffered in a crash at Pocono (Pa.) International Raceway in 1988. And Bobby's younger brother Donnie, 53, who is now retired, raced only sporadically after suffering life-threatening injuries in Charlotte in 1981. During the past year Davey had reevaluated his priorities, especially after a very close call at Pocono last July, when his car flipped 11 times. He escaped with a broken right arm and collarbone and a fractured and dislocated wrist, then raced again the next Sunday at his beloved "home track," Talladega.
The morning after Davey died, Father Dale Grubba sat staring at his breakfast in a Birmingham airport motel and wondering, sometimes aloud, what he would say to the Allisons this time. For 20 years the Princeton, Wis., priest has been a friend and counselor to the family. While working as a part-time journalist for national motor-sports magazines in the early '70s, Grubba had interviewed Bobby Allison at a Wisconsin racetrack one day and heard his confession that night. He has been with the Allison family through every injury, crisis and tragedy since then.
Even in the good times Grubba was there, often saying Mass on race Sundays for the Allisons and the handful of other Catholics on a NASCAR tour populated by drivers whose beliefs range from evangelical to agnostic. One of Grubba's flock had been Alan Kulwicki, who won the Winston Cup driving championship in 1992 and was killed in a private plane crash on his way to a race in Bristol, Tenn., in April of this year. Grubba had said Kulwicki's funeral Mass in Milwaukee. And now, on the morning of July 14, Grubba had flown to Alabama to concelebrate Davey Allison's funeral Mass and to comfort, as best he could, the family of the second NASCAR star to die in a private-aircraft crash in four months.
The crash that killed Kulwicki and three other people is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, and NTSB officials said last week that it will be six months to a year before findings are released on the Allison crash. Semiretired driver Charles (Red) Farmer, 61, another longtime Allison family friend, was a passenger in the helicopter, but he survived, suffering a broken collarbone and fractured ribs. Farmer and Allison had flown to Talladega from Hueytown, 60 miles away, to watch friend Neil Bonnett's son, David, test a car.
According to NTSB investigator Roff Sasser, witnesses reported that Allison's helicopter was within a foot of touching down safely in the parking lot when it began oscillating and suddenly rose about 25 feet into the air. It spun counterclockwise, rolled and crashed, its tail rotor striking a fence on the way down. Sasser said no evidence of mechanical failure had yet been found, but that "we've got a long way to go" in examining the wreckage. He would not speculate as to the cause of the crash. Allison, with six years experience as a pilot of fixed-wing aircraft, reportedly had only about 65 hour of flying time in helicopters and about 10 hours in the Hughes 369-HS he had bought less than a month before.
Ever since his father's critical injury in 1988, Davey had been the de facto head of the family. On that Sunday evening in Pennsylvania it was Davey who influenced the decision by his mother, Judy, to allow the brain surgery that could either have left Bobby in a permanent vegetative state or given him the tiniest chance at recovery. Bobby, who was unconscious, had for years expressed his wish never to be kept on life support. But Davey persuaded Judy to sign the papers approving the operation. "We've got to take the chance," he told her, and then prayed for a miracle. He got it. By the day of Davey's helicopter crash, his father was walking and talking almost normally.
So Davey's death not only left behind his wife, Liz, and their children, Krista, 3, and Robert, 1, but it also left the larger Allison family without its central pillar. Scarcely an hour after he died, Robert Yates, his car owner, said, "God has asked an awful lot of this family."
Among the many racing people attending the wake and funeral in Alabama—they ranged from retired NASCAR driver Benny Parsons to Indy Car and Formula One patriarch Mario Andretti—the question everyone seemed to be asking was, "Why?" Said Andretti, "It is beyond my comprehension. If ever there was goodness in anyone, it is in that family. The whole family. They are the example of goodness."
As Grubba finished his breakfast and prepared to drive out to Hueytown to meet with the family for the first time since Davey's death, the waitress clearing the table said, "Excuse me, Father, but I just wanted you to know.... Everybody's asking, Why? Why? Why?" The priest did not attempt an answer; he could only mutter, "Yeah."
But a few moments later Grubba tried to offer an explanation. "I have to look at it from a different perspective," he said. "One of the worst things a priest or a counselor can do is try to come up with an easy answer. Something like 'God needed him more than we did' is a terrible answer for the family. Sometimes people are blessed with a certain simplicity in their faith. I think the Allisons have this very simple, deep faith that is not the faith of maybe a priest or someone who has studied religion." As the priest prepared to leave for the Allison home, he decided he would simply "be present and listen. A lot of times people talk through things and resolve them within themselves."
As Grubba drove into the Allison compound at the end of Church Avenue in Hueytown, he saw that police had blockaded the street, turning away grieving fans and curiosity seekers. The police, seeing the priest's collar, let him pass. He sat in the car for a few minutes, speaking of Rose Kennedy (as a seminary student in 1963, Grubba had participated in John F. Kennedy's funeral) and drawing parallels between the Kennedy and Allison families: "Those of us who lived through that era said the same thing: How many more of these does the lady have to endure? She too was that epitome of tough Irish Catholicism. That deep, deep faith."
Even as he spoke, up walked the Rose Kennedy of motor racing, 86-year-old Kittie Allison, beloved throughout NASCAR as Mom Allison—Bobby's mother, Davey's grandmother. She had endured not only the ordeals of the younger generation but also the death of her husband, E.J., a year ago last April.
"How much more can Bobby and Judy take, Father?" she asked. "God give them strength."
"They've got people like you, though, who are examples of strength," said Grubba.
"I just hope I can be enough for them, that's all," she said. "You have to go on and accept it. You can't ask why. Someday we might know. You've got to say, like Davey said, 'When my time comes, I'm gonna go,' and he was very philosophical about that right along."
She sighed. "Have you seen them [Bobby and Judy] yet, Father?" she asked.
"Just going in now, Mom. How are they doing?"
"It's terrible hard, Father. But everybody has been so wonderful. From all over. All over."
Judy was in the house with relatives; Bobby was down the hill in the old racing shop he and Donnie built in 1964 after they migrated from Miami. Grubba walked slowly toward the shop along with the journalist acquaintance, who had known the Allisons for nearly 20 years. Standing in the middle of the shop office, which was crowded with men, Bobby embraced the priest and told him, "I know I'm a walking miracle. Honestly, I asked for a miracle again when we were in the hospital [with Davey]. I didn't get the miracle. But it doesn't mean I won't ask for another miracle again sometime."
Then Bobby turned to the journalist, whom over the years he had laughed with, fussed at, complimented, criticized and even once threatened to "bust in the mouth"—and the two embraced and wept hard. "It hurts. Ohhh, it hurts," Bobby said. "All the joy...all the success...now all the heartache."
In that same shop, 15 years before, Bobby had pointed to a picture on the wall of an old modified race car tumbling down a dirt track in a cloud of flame. "See that?" he had told the writer. "That's me on fire." Then he had shrugged. "It's just an occupational hazard." Now, speaking of his 1988 injury, Bobby said, "Mine was a racing accident. Clifford's was a racing accident. But now this. I guess what I'm trying to say is, nowhere is safe."
"Drivers always say that, yes, people may die in racing, but they also die elsewhere," said Grubba. "And when a racer dies racing, the other drivers always come back to the thought that the person died doing what he loved to do."
Race car drivers accept their occupational hazard. But death in the manner of ordinary men tears them apart: It is "much harder" to accept, Parsons had observed only minutes after receiving word of Davey's death. Similarly, the public reaction to the deaths of Kulwicki and Davey has been more emotional and widespread than it would have been if the fatalities had been racing-related.
"When Alan passed away," said Grubba, "one of the questions that kept surfacing was, 'Why are people all over so concerned?' After a racing accident I think people realize that, 'Well, I wouldn't die in a race car, because I don't race.' But the way people are viewing Alan and Davey's deaths is that, 'I could fall out of the sky, because I do fly.' "
Farmer, who was out of the hospital and at the Allison compound only two days after the disaster, described the crash: Just before what he expected to be an easy touchdown, the helicopter "just shot up in the air," he said. What happened next "you can't describe unless you've been in a race car that is flipping, turning over. You get disoriented. I could see the sun, I could sec 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.
"I braced myself," Farmer said. "I put my left hand against the console and my right hand against the window. I guess natural instinct from driving race cars tells you to always brace yourself when you figure something's going to happen. Davey was still fighting the controls and couldn't brace himself. 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!' I knew it was full of fuel and the motor was still running, wide open. I've been in situations where friends of mine have turned over in race cars, and if they're hanging upside down, you don't pull the belts, because if you do, they crash down, and sometimes that hurts them worse than hanging there. And with one arm I couldn't undo the scat belt and hold Davey up at the same time.
"I knew we were at the track, where there would be help coming [from safety crews]. The windshield was busted out, and I kicked more of the glass away and tried to wriggle out. I got about halfway out, and Neil [Bonnett] was there. He dragged me 15 or 20 feet away from the helicopter, and I said, 'Neil, go get Davey, because he's unconscious. He's got to get out before it catches on fire.' So Neil ran back to the helicopter, and I lay there for a few minutes, and then someone said, 'We've got Davey out, and we're gonna get you to the hospital.'
"They took us to the infield hospital to wait for the helicopters [from Birmingham's Carraway Medical Center], and that's about all," Farmer said, now sobbing. "I didn't see Davey anymore."
During the funeral last Thursday—attended by 600 racing people and observed from a distance by an estimated 4,000 onlookers—at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Bessemer, Ala., NASCAR president Bill France Jr. stood alone in the parking lot, smoking a cigarette. "Bobby and Judy had to work hard for everything they had," he said, "and it seemed like early '88 was the best they'd ever had it." That February, Bobby and Davey had finished one-two in the Daytona 500, and though the old man had blown him off at the finish, Davey called it the happiest and proudest moment of his life. "Since then," said France, "they haven't had a break."
After the funeral Donnie stood in Bobby's front yard, gazing at their mother's house across the street. Donnie was asked if Davey's death was, finally, too much for the family. "I don't know if there is too much," he said. "That lady right over there, and our dad, raised us to believe from the time we were little bitty kids that you put it in the Good Lord's hands and you don't question His decisions."
Two summers ago this week, during a traffic-jammed drive from Talladega to Hueytown—precisely the kind of delay he hoped to avoid by owning a helicopter—Davey had expounded upon the subject of death. "If you think about it seriously," he said, "it could happen to us right now on this road." A thunderstorm was brewing. "Or we could get out of this car at my shop, and a bolt of lightning could kill us. We could be going to the grocery store to buy milk for our kids, and some clown could run into us and kill us there."
Or a person could maneuver a helicopter to within one foot of a perfectly safe touchdown in a parking lot and then have things go suddenly, inexplicably crazy. But all that's really important, Davey Allison said two summers ago, is "to leave this earth knowing we've done our best."
MARK B. SLUDER/THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
Allison's helicopter was only a foot from landing safely at Talladega when disaster struck.
At the burial Grubba lent support to the family, while long-time fan Cindy Good mourned.
MARK B. SLUDER/THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
[See caption above.]
MARK B. SLUDER/THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER
Farmer, who was able to brace himself during the crash, escaped with a few broken bones.
Bobby, who has now outlived both of his sons, sought comfort from a friend at the funeral.
Allison's grave in Hueytown was massed with bouquets, many with his race car number.