It happened recently — the 20th anniversary of stock-car racer Davey Allison’s death. Maybe you remember him. Maybe you don’t. But I shall never forget him.
The first time I met him was when he won an ARCA race at the track then called Atlanta International Raceway. I was a sportswriter covering the event. He was happy, but his joy was marred by the death of another driver that day. The next time I saw him was a couple of years later in Talladega. Never have I seen anyone as happy — just bursting with unbridled joy — as Davey was that day.
Neil Bonnett, part of the Alabama gang that included Allison and a short-tracker named Red Farmer, had been injured the previous week and was unable to drive his Junior Johnson-owned Chevrolet. He suggested Davey, who had never driven in the big leagues but knew every short-track turn in the Southeast by memory, drive it. Junior agreed, and what resulted was public-relations mania for everyone involved. After all, what makes a better story than a hometown boy making his debut on the world’s fastest speedway, filling in for a man who is like an uncle to him, racing against his own father, Bobby?
Though I’m prone to overstatements, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have never seen anyone shimmer with such happiness. I’m grinning now just recalling how that tall, scrawny kid with the shoulder hunch did not quit smiling all weekend. Those few races where he filled in for Bonnett paid off. By the time next season rolled around, Davey had a full-time ride with a top-notch team and wealthy sponsorships. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 and put the sport on notice: An up-and-coming superstar had arrived. In the next Daytona 500, the Allisons ran one-and-two, with Bobby winning.
We became good buddies in those youthful days when life was unblemished by worries and we, like too many kids, thought we were invincible and immortal. Remember those days? Remember when laughter rang brightly and we thought nothing of throwing all caution to the wind? Sometimes, Davey would sidle up to me in the garage, elbow me, and, with that twinkle in his brown eyes, tease about one of many somethings. He often strode up behind me, pulled my hair, and then stepped out of sight before I could turn around.
“I think,” he said one day, grinning, “that that guy over there likes you.” He pointed to the fence that separated the garage from the infield. There, hanging onto the fencing was a pot-bellied, shirtless man who was far past three sheets to the wind. Davey winked. “He asked me to get your number for him.”
There were many things he teased me about, including a prank that Bobby had once played on me. I turned the tables on him one day, when he won the pole in Darlington, by telling a story that Bobby had told me about Davey’s first race in Birmingham and all the caution flags he brought out. Davey, usually good-natured, did not laugh when I told that one to the entire press room.
And then he died. It ended there at Talladega, where it all started. He crashed a helicopter he’d been trying to land inside a fenced-in area of the track infield, where he had planned to watch Bonnett test a car. Three months earlier, another friend, Alan Kulwick, had died in a plane crash. My spirit was so dark that I wondered if I would ever laugh again. Less than a year later, the amicable Bonnett died, too, during practice for the Daytona 500.
It’s been 20 years without Davey Allison and I, at last, am able to laugh at his antics rather than recall just the sorrow.
There are the lessons that he taught, such as we’re not invincible. Use every day to seize that which makes you bubble with happiness.
Rich is the author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her newsletter.