SI Vault
Ed Hinton
February 10, 1997
NASCAR legend Bobby Allison suffered brain damage in a crash and saw both his sons die young, but somehow he is able to carry on
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February 10, 1997

How Much Can One Man Bear?

NASCAR legend Bobby Allison suffered brain damage in a crash and saw both his sons die young, but somehow he is able to carry on

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"He went back out. Then suddenly his crew chief threw down his radio headset and said, 'He crashed.' I said, 'Is he O.K.?' The crew chief put the headset back on and said, 'Clifford? Are you O.K.? Clifford, can you hear me? Clifford? Clifford?'

"I started walking. All the safety vehicles came tearing down the pit road the wrong way—very unusual. Out on the track I saw Bobby Labonte stop his car, get out and look into Clifford's car. Then Labonte stepped back, climbed back in his car and drove away. I kept walking. A NASCAR official came up and said, 'Bobby, they don't want you out there.' I said, 'That's my son. I'm going.' He said, 'I'll walk with you.' And I walked up to that car....

"After that, Davey became really attentive to me. He would always say, 'Come on, Dad, go with me in my plane.' Or, 'Come on, Dad, let's go get a bite to eat.' I rode home with him from the '93 New Hampshire race in his Cheyenne airplane. I sat in the copilot seat. We talked about all kinds of things. Some old things. Some current things. His outlook. His ambitions. The next morning I had a [physical] therapy session and then went to my office, down the hill there from the house. I was on the phone. Another line rang. Donnie Johnson [Allison's brother-in-law and former business manager] answered it. He listened, and he looked at me and said, 'Hang up the phone.' He had never said such a thing to me before. I looked at him. He said, 'Hang up the phone. And get that other line.' The other line said Davey's helicopter had crashed at Talladega.

"I went to the house and told Judy we had to go. We got to the hospital in Birmingham before the rescue helicopter got there with Davey. They were gathering doctors. There was one they had a lot of confidence in for head injuries. They worked on Davey for about three hours. Then they said we'd have to wait and see.

"I went and found a room by myself. I waited there for an incredibly long night." Just after dawn Davey died.

The next morning, down at his racing shop at the end of Church Avenue, Bobby buried his face in the chest of a journalist he had known for a long time, and he wept as hard as a man can weep and remain standing. "It hurts!" he sobbed. Then he screamed, "Ohhhh, it hurts!"

But only hours later, after Davey's funeral, Bobby stood in the front yard at 135 Church Avenue, smiled and told the same journalist, "My religion teaches me that I have to forgive everyone of everything. But no one can convince me that I have to forgive Darrell Waltrip."

Allison now says that over the years, through long talks with Waltrip's deeply religious wife, Stevie, he has given up many of his grievances against Darrell. "I may—I probably will—end up down there shoveling coal with the little red guy," Allison says, "but I'm gonna tell you something: I still have forgiven Darrell Waltrip only three fourths." Maybe those grudges that give Allison relief really are God-sent.

On a Tuesday morning, Kitty Allison drives home to 136 Church Avenue from early Mass. She sits down at her kitchen table and begins to work on her Avon cosmetic accounts before leaving on her sales calls. She may be the sharpest, strongest, most active—in other words, the most independent—90-year-old woman on earth. Bobby has just left for Mobile, where he will see Jeremiah Denton, a Vietnam War hero, later a U.S. senator and the author of Bobby's favorite book, When Hell Was in Session. Denton is recovering from cancer, and Bobby has always kept the Catholic tradition of visiting sick friends.

Kitty's home is filled with religious articles, mostly statues of the Virgin. The Mother of God gazes down from the front room wall at every visitor who enters. Beside Kitty on the sofa is a newly framed certificate proclaiming the apostolic blessing of His Holiness Pope John Paul II upon Katherine Allison on the occasion of her 90th birthday. "There is some reason," she says, her eyes welling with tears, "some reason all of this has happened. We don't know what it is. But there's some reason. Someday we hope to find out." Her face grows staunch, and her tears disappear. She says, "Don't you realize what a miracle it is?"

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