From the book Miracle: Bobby Allison and the Saga of the Alabama Gang by Peter Golenbock. Copyright (c) 2005 by Peter Golenbock. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC. Now available wherever books are sold.
"You can either be a choirboy or a race car driver." - Neil Bonnett
Before Davey Allison could walk, he wanted to race. His first sounds were engine sounds.
"I remember the first two words out of his mouth when he was nine months old," said Bobby. "Davey stood up in the car seat next to me and said, 'Vraddnnnn! Vraddnnnnn!' "It was the sound a V-8 makes when the driver hits the throttle.
While Davey was growing up, all he thought about was racing.
"I had to stay after school because I was dillydallying, drawing pictures of race cars instead of paying attention," Davey said. "Sometimes they were pictures of my dad's car, but mostly they were what I dreamed mine would look like."
Wanda Lund, Tiny Lund's widow, was a close friend of the Allisons. Wanda recalled one race when Judy asked her to watch Davey, who was six or seven.
"This was before wives and children were allowed in the pits," she said. "The wives all tried to pitch in and watch each other's kids, Davey was a little spitfire who'd dart here and dart there. He was so inquisitive, so nosy, about this racing.
"Davey got away from me and ran in front of a car, and when I caught him, I wanted to shake him. I told him, 'Your momma should tie you to a tree.' He never forgot that."
In high school all Davey thought after was stock car racing. He went out for football in the ninth grade, but the coach told him he would have to gain forty pounds to reach 130 pounds. Davey quit to concentrate on working for his dad.
"Bobby would be working on his Cup car," said Red Farmer, "and Davey would come in, and Bobby would make him sweep the floors, clean up stuff." Bobby paid him fifty cents an hour.
"It used to burn ole Davey," said Farmer, "but he was learning how to do things. Bobby taught him the right way. Davey didn't get nothing handed to him. He had to help Bobby during the day, and then he could work nights on his Sportsman car."
When Davey was sixteen, Bobby was working on his '77 American Motors Matador, and he was having trouble with the car. Bobby was doing all the work himself, and he said, "It was killing me."
Davey volunteered to help, and Bobby was so weary that he agreed. It wasn't long, said Bobby, before Davey could do a complete teardown.
"I mean he could build an engine, put it on the dyno, prep it, test it, tear it down, put it back together, everything needed to get the car ready," said Bobby.
"Davey had a bunch of kids who worked with him, and they worked hard, and they loved to race. Davey was smart enough to know experience would overcome a lot of things if you took time to learn, so he was listening pretty good.
"If you told him something, he would go back and do it, and if it worked good, he'd remember that. He learned good, and that's why he became such a great driver. He had the feel for the car. He was super sharp. You could give him two pieces of angle iron, and he could build you a chassis, build a motor, wire them up, and set the chassis."
"After everyone left the shop, I taught myself how to weld," said Davey. "I would pick up scrap metal and weld it together, practicing every night."
"He wanted to learn all that stuff," said Red Farmer. "He could do anything. There wasn't anything about a race car Davey didn't know about. That's what made him good, because when he came off the racetrack, he could talk to the crew chief. He didn't say, 'The car ain't handling.' He'd come in and say, 'We need to change the springs,' or the shocks or the sway bar, because he understood it. So he could give the crew chief more input than most drivers, and that made a lot of difference."
Davey also drove the truck that carried Bobby's race car to the track. While Bobby was flying to the race in his plane, Davey was logging 150,000 miles staying up all night to get to the races on time.
"Dad would give me a place and a time to be there, and I'd better be there," Davey said.
Judy told Davey he couldn't begin his racing career until he graduated from high school. He had to get his diploma. No GED.
Davey spent his formative years in and around race cars. (This image is from the SCR Archi
Davey, who wanted to begin his racing career just as soon as he could, went to summer school for extra credit in order to graduate a term early. Such was the dedication of Davey Allison.
"Constantly Davey would say, 'I'm going to be the best racer,' said Bobby. "I'm going to do what my dad did. I'm going to do better than my Dad did.' "
Davey started in the Hobby division while Bobby was off Winston Cup racing. Red Farmer did all he could to help Davey and younger brother Clifford as well.
"I was running here in Birmingham, Huntsville, and Montgomery, tracks Davey and Clifford were running on, and so naturally I took over Bobby's place trying to help Davey and Clifford as much as I could, because they were like my kids," said Red.
Farmer took Davey to his first race on dirt. They went to the Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, Alabama.
"He was like Ned's First Reader the first few laps," said Farmer.
Red told him he had to throw the nose of the car ten feet deeper in the turn than he had been doing on asphalt. Within a few laps Davey set a new world record for a three-eighths-mile dirt track.
"But Davey was like his daddy and Donnie," said Red. "He never liked the dirt tracks much, either."
The day Davey turned eighteen, he showed up at the Birmingham Speedway ready to race. It was his Uncle Donnie who gave him the equipment to compete.
Donnie Allison had three boys, Kenny and twins Ronald and Donald. Ronald was a good driver, ("Ronald had big balls," says John Bailey, who raced against him), and Bobby gave him a fast car for Ronald to race at the Birmingham International Raceway.
(As a driver, Kenny was "way better than Davey," says Eddie Allison. Kenny ran Late Model. When Kenny moved to North Carolina to race, he asked John Bailey if he wanted to go with him. Bailey, who was living in Dothan, Alabama, decided not to go. Later, Kenny had to choose between racing and his girlfriend, and he chose the girlfriend. Bailey today drives Modified cars at the Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, Florida.)
By 1979, Donnie felt Davey needed more help than Bobby was giving him.
Donnie said to Bobby, "Why don't you give that boy a car he can go race with?"Bobby said, "He'll do all right."
"And that was it," said Donnie. "That boy was at a stage where he needed help. And for whatever reason, he didn't get it."
Donnie decided that since Bobby had helped out Ronnie, he would help out Davey. Donnie gave Davey his old DiGard car, an old Nova. It had been sitting for two years.
Bobby said Davey would have to work on his car "after hours." And so after working eight to five on Bobby's car, Davey and cousin Kenny stripped the Nova down and got it ready to race evenings and early mornings.
When Davey and his crew cranked the engine up, water crickets blew out the exhaust. Once fixed, though, the car still could go fast.
"Davey came and got my car on a Tuesday afternoon," said Donnie. That night he didn't run, but a week later he made his first start and finished fifth.
Donnie helped Davey in other ways. Donnie loved to discuss how to drive with Davey, and when he was needed, Donnie would cut and weld and bolt or do whatever Davey needed.
"Donnie loved Davey, too," said Eddie Allison. "Donnie would talk to him about how to work hard. So did I. Davey would work his ass off."
If Bobby didn't give Davey money or cars to race, he encouraged him and gave him wise advice. Bobby believed strongly that his short-track experience had been crucial to his success, and he counseled Davey to follow the same path.
"I encouraged him to go to the short tracks, to the local Late Model, Modified, and Sportsmen races," said Bobby. "And he had pretty good success pretty quick. He really wanted to do it."
Davey drove his first race at the Birmingham International Speedway on April 22, 1979. He finished twentieth. On May 5, in his sixth start, Bobby watched as Davey won. (The next day Bobby won at Talladega.) For a time, racing didn't come easy for Davey.
"Davey had to work, because he didn't have the talent," said Eddie Allison. "He got in that race car, and he grabbed hold of that steering wheel, and he said, 'I'm going to beat you.' "
But as dedicated and hardworking as Davey was working on his Sportsman car, in the beginning he didn't accomplish much because he didn't know how to work.
Davey and Bobby celebrate after Davey finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 50
"You had to drive a leg alongside of him to see he was moving in his results," said Eddie. "But because he kept working, he finally got by that. See, he overpowered that just working. Eventually Davey knew everything on the race car there was to do.
"And Davey ended up getting the feel his daddy had. If he needed a washer in the corner of his seat, he could feel it."
One of Davey's close friends was John Bailey, whose father, Jerry, did paint and body work for Bobby Allison Racing.
"When we were eighteen," Bailey said, "we talked about girls, and we talked about booze. We were both racers, and I remember going with Davey to buy tires. Afterward we sat and talked about our futures. We were running Late Models. Davey was talking about running Winston Cup one day. I knew I'd never have the money or help to get that far.
"My daddy was a body man," Bailey said. "His daddy was Bobby Allison."
The first time Davey and John Bailey raced against each other, John won. The second time, Davey finished ahead. By the third race, Davey was winning races.
John Bailey had sought the same sponsor as Davey. Said Bailey without rancor, "His name was Allison. Mine was Bailey. Guess who got the sponsorship? He had a better car, and he had sponsorship money to buy the little extras like new tires that gave him the advantage over the others."
Davey and John would go into a bar together. According to Bailey, Davey's pickup line was, "My dad is Bobby Allison." Said Bailey, "He was enthralled that his daddy was Bobby Allison." But, Bailey said, "the line didn't mean much to those girls."
Davey didn't get new cars to race. Rather, Bobby gave him what others described as junk cars. "My dad told me I had to prove to him my ambition, dedication, and determination before he would support me in anything," said Davey. "If he was going to supply me with a race car, he wanted me to know what was going on in that car."
Bobby wanted Davey to learn another important lesson: why it made financial sense to finish races. If Davey crashed and if he didn't have the money on hand to repair the car, Bobby didn't bail him out. He would have to sit out a few races while he earned the money to fix the car. Davey learned this lesson quickly.
Davey, his brother Clifford, and a youngster by the name of Hut Stricklin began racing at the half-mile paved track in Montgomery, one of the tracks the Alabama Gang had dominated in the mid-1960s. Before, it had been the Alabama Gang-two Allison brothers, Bobby and Donnie, along with Red Farmer. Now it was two Allison brothers, Davey and Clifford, along with their friend Hut Stricklin.
When Davey started out in the Sportsman division, Bobby never put any pressure on him. People thought he had better equipment than he had, and the fans were surprised when he crashed as much as he did.
"Driving skill is not inherited," said Eddie Allison. "You have to learn how to drive a car. After a while, Davey figured out how to go faster, and he became very successful in the Sportsman division."
Bobby's plan was for Davey to move up from Sportsman and Late Model racing to the higher ARCA and Busch circuits, and then work his way up to Winston Cup. First, Davey had to get out of Alabama.
In 1983 Davey began to drive on the ARCA circuit. He won the pole at Talladega, and then the race.
In 1984 Davey was ARCA Rookie of the Year. That year he won at Talladega, Atlanta, and Indianapolis Raceway Park. He lost the ARCA racing championship by 30 points because he had to miss one of the races: He was on his honeymoon with his first wife, Deborah.
By 1985, Davey had won more superspeedway races than any other ARCA driver in history, and that year he drove in three Winston Cup races for Hoss Ellington.
Davey entered his first Winston Cup race, in his backyard at Talladega, on July 28, 1985. He was twenty-four years old, and NASCAR wasn't sure it was a good idea to let him enter his first race on the fastest speedway of them all, but NASCAR also knew that a lot of Allison fans from Alabama would flock to the track to see what Bobby's son could do. All weekend Davey was mobbed by well-wishers and reporters.
He finished the race a remarkable tenth. Dad Bobby was tickled pink.
"I thought that was really neat," said Bobby. "Here was this youngster coming along, and he had this personality that people really just loved. People would meet him, and after two or three minutes, they'd really like him. I enjoyed that part of his personality, too. Every father enjoys their children when they see special parts of their personality. When people became Davey Allison fans, that was a compliment to me, too."
Based on this performance, Hoss Ellington offered Davey two more rides. On October 6 he went to Charlotte, and he was driving in the top ten when with 30 laps left in the race, his engine blew.
Davey, shown here in 1993 just days before his death, never completely got away from turni
His third start was at Atlanta on November 3. He only went 52 laps when his engine failed. His was the first car to be eliminated.
Davey was hired to drive for Nathan Sims, a family friend from Pensacola. But when Davey blew three engines in seven laps, he decided he needed to run better equipment and quit.
In 1986 Davey drove in four races for trucking magnate Earl Sadler and his son Check, who were from Greenville, South Carolina. Davey's best finish in 1986 was a twelfth at Richmond. Tom Pistone prepared the cars in his Charlotte shop and acted as crew chief. Davey was expecting to race in as many as twenty races, but the Sadlers weren't able to attract a sponsor. The low point of the season came at Darlington, where Davey was involved in a crash on the first lap. Critics barked that the only reason he was in the race was that his last name was Allison. He had no serious prospects for continuing.
Then in July 1986 Neil Bonnett was injured at Pocono. Davey decided to open the door himself. He called car owner Junior Johnson and offered his services to practice and qualify the car for Neil. Junior hired him, and when doctors refused to let Bonnett drive because of an injury to his right arm, on July 27, 1986, Davey drove Junior's car in the Talladega 500.
Davey led the race several times, and when he finished seventh, no one ever questioned his ability again.
Bonnett had been one of the first to appreciate Davey's skill. "He's a good one," he said. "There's a quality that separates the good ones from the rest, and he has it. It's something people don't like nowadays: aggressiveness. But I say you can either be a choirboy or a race driver."
Davey had put in his time, paid his dues. Now he was ready. Harry Ranier had not seen the Talladega race because he was in Australia at the time, but a friend taped it and showed it to him two weeks later. Ranier was impressed and hired Davey for 1987.
Driver Cale Yarborough had left Ranier to start his own team, and took his sponsor, Hardee's, with him. Crew chief Waddell Wilson left as well. And Harry Ranier was having financial difficulties.
Harry Ranier recovered. He attracted a new sponsor, Texaco. And he made two important hires, signing Joey Knuckles to be the crew chief and Robert Yates to be the team manager and engine builder. Davey, a twenty-five-year-old rookie on the Winston Cup circuit, had exactly eight Winston Cup races under his belt.
Most rebuilt race teams take some time to make their mark. Davey's Texaco team made its impact immediately. Davey had driven at Daytona since 1991 in races in lesser circuits, so the track was not new to him. In his first attempt at qualifying for the Daytona 500, Davey outran his father and his uncle Donnie to win the outside pole at 210.364 miles an hour. He was the first rookie ever to start in the first row in the Daytona 500. Bill Elliott was the pole sitter.
"He may be a rookie in some other people's eyes, but not in mine," said Elliott.Bobby qualified fourth behind Ken Schrader.
"Don't turn your back on the Alabama Gang," cracked Bobby. "They're liable to take your wallet."
Bobby finished sixth that day; Davey twenty-seventh.
"I think we could have won that race, but we made a rookie mistake," said Davey. "We had a jack break during a pit stop. It had never happened before, and I didn't know how to react. I got overanxious and left without the lug nuts. I didn't make it back around."
At the end of May, Davey and Bobby again were running one, two at the high-banked Dover Downs International Speedway when Bobby's car overheated three-quarters of the way through the race and he had to drop out. Davey won again. It was the first time in Winston Cup history that a rookie had won two races in a season.
Davey Allison was named Rookie of the Year.
After J. T. Lundy left Ranier racing after the 1987 season, Ranier's financial state worsened. Engine builder Robert Yates even spent some of his own money to keep the team going. Yates would turn out to be a single most important figure in Davey's racing career.
Robert Yates had begun his racing career in 1968 working for Holman and Moody as its air gauge department manager and quickly moved up to assistant engine builder. In 1971, he joined Junior Johnson's race team and built engines for Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough. Then he spent ten years fighting with the Gardner brothers at DiGard while he built engines that ran fast and lasted. Yates had been the engine builder when Bobby won his driving championship in 1983.
DiGard wasn't stable, and just before the Daytona 500 in 1986, Yates left the team abruptly.
Davey and the Robert Yates No. 28 Ford had become quite a pair before Davey's fatal helico
Robin Pemberton, the crew chief of the DiGard team, recalled the day Robert Yates left DiGard and the final days of a once-great race team.
"We made some decent runs with Greg [Sacks] in '85, but we were struggling," said Pemberton. "We made it through the year, made it through the wintertime attempting to build a car or two, but then there was big money trouble. The checks never bounced, but we knew it was close when we would get paid, because we always got our paycheck two minutes after the bank closed.
"We made it through the wintertime but some of our people left. They had been there long enough, and it didn't look like we would have a sponsor.
"We signed TRW, the automotive after-market, to be Greg's sponsor in 1986. We started the season, but we were struggling. Robert Yates was still there. In February of 1986 we were at Daytona for the 500, and Dick Beaty, who was in charge of competition for NASCAR, made the announcement at the end of the day, 'OK, guys, put your tools down and go home.'
"The night he made that announcement, Robert Yates said, 'Okay, I'm laying my tools down, and I'm going home.' Well, what Robert meant was, he was laying his tools down and going home home. He said to me, 'I got you this far.'
"I had the sense something was going wrong, and sure enough, that was his last day at Di-Gard. He was gone. He took his tools, and he went home. He had just had enough. One too many checks didn't go in the right direction. So the next day I have no engine builder.
"We went to Richmond, then we went to Rockingham. By then we were working from six in the morning until five or six in the morning every day. We didn't have enough men, didn't have enough going on. You would literally leave the shop, drive home, take a shower, turn around, and drive back to work. My wife wasn't doing real good with it. Our child was four months old. This whole thing was insane.
"It was time to leave."
Robert Yates was so disillusioned with what happened to him at DiGard that he decided to leave stock car racing completely and accept a job working on the development of synthetic fuels. His civilian career didn't last a year. In 1987 the master engine builder was hired as team manager of the Ranier-Lundy race team, which itself was experiencing hard times.
Davey expressed his concern to the hardworking Yates that if he didn't do something, there would be no race team at all in 1988. Even though Yates had been a weekly paycheck employee his whole career, Harry Ranier saw in Yates the same thing Davey saw: a bright-no, brilliant-engine man who had what it took to own and run a successful race team. At the end of the 1987 season, Ranier offered to sell Yates the team at a discount with an affordable payment plan.
Davey and Robert Yates had developed a mutual admiration society. When Davey heard about the offer, Davey told Yates, "If you buy the team, I will drive for you the rest of my life."
"What Davey loved about Robert was that he loved to win," said Eddie Allison. "Robert's a racer. Robert is sharp, and Robert really knew why the motor ran, so he could bolt the stuff on he knew made it run. And Robert was willing to listen. He didn't buck Davey on how to make the car turn the corner, as so many do."
His confidence bolstered by Davey's promise, Robert Yates agreed to buy the team from Ranier, though he was acting against his very conservative nature. An ethical, upstanding person, Yates firmly believed in the adage, "Neither a lender nor a borrower be," and to buy the team Yates would have to go into hock.
This was a crossroads in his life. If Robert Yates was going to be a team owner, this was his shot. Because Harry Ranier was in financial trouble, the team would go for a cut-rate price. Not cheap, but cut-rate. Yates could see it was a team with all the elements in place: good cars, great engines, and a talented young driver. And so Robert Yates sold his car and mortgaged his home and secured the financing to buy the race team.
For the rest of his career, as promised, Davey Allison would drive for Robert Yates Racing.
Peter Golenbock has written six New York Times bestsellers. His books include American Zoom, The Last Lap, and NASCAR Confidential. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.