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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."