(NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal in its 2003 Winston Cup-ending issue.)
BOBBY ALLISON IS MAKING HIS WAY BACK FROM A WAVE OF TRAGEDY
By Tom Gillispie
For four years, Bobby Allison wandered through Winston Cup garages like a lost man.
Everything dear to him was gone. His sons, Clifford and Davey, were dead. His long marriage to Judy was over. He didn’t even have all of his memories.
The slide began in 1988, when he crashed at Pocono. He lost some of his memory and was forced to retire. He was lucky to be alive. Still ...
"It took away my life," Allison has said. "I was 50 years old, but I had won Daytona that year for the third time. I felt like I was still very, very competitive." After the wreck, the boys buoyed the shaky Bobby. Allison’s eyes still twinkle when he talks about them.
"Clifford, when he was a teen-ager, he was always pushing the limit of what he could get away with," Allison said, laughing. "He was pulling some kind of fun prank that was fun for him, but it caused a great deal of aggravation. It took a great deal of restraint to keep from hurting him in punishment. But the smile on his face would melt you regardless of how mad you were.
"Davey was the one who was so focused on racing, so consumed with it. He enjoyed my input, and he wanted to do everything, to work in the shop, to learn how a car was built, and he adjusted and improved. I really enjoyed that part of him."
Bobby said that, other than Judy, the person who helped him the most was Clifford. He didn’t have Davey’s commitment to racing, but he took the time to help his dad. They would talk, do father-and-son stuff. And it helped.
Then Clifford died Aug. 13, 1992, in a crash at Michigan Speedway.
A month after Clifford’s death, Bobby said, Davey began to take time from his own career to help Bobby. Bobby doesn’t know why; he just did.
It might have been the most time the two spent together. When Bobby was racing, he didn’t have as much time for his children. And when Davey said he wanted to become a driver, Bobby didn’t hand him anything. He just pointed to the garage, and said, "There it is, build something."
Maybe it was with an "I’ll show him" attitude, but Davey worked in his dad’s shop and built his own cars. He started racing at Birmingham (Ala.) International Raceway in 1979 and finished fifth in his first feature. He got his first victory that year in his sixth start.
He raced ARCA, All Pro, DIRT and ASA series races, as well as NASCAR Winston West, the Busch Series, Grand American and the Dash Series. He won more than 40 short-track races and was the 1984 ARCA rookie of the year.
Davey ran his first Winston Cup race at Talladega in July 1985, finishing 10th. In 1987, he won two races and was the Winston Cup rookie of the year.
The highlight of Bobby’s and Davey’s lives together was the 1988 Daytona 500. Bobby won, and Davey finished on his bumper. Afterward, Davey talked about his excitement over his dad’s victory and said it was better than if he had won.
Four months later, Bobby crashed at Pocono. Then in ’92, Davey won the Daytona 500, and his crash at the end of The Winston that summer scared the family. But Davey persevered, and he might have become as big a star as his father. Had he not been wrecked early in the 1992 Winston Cup finale at Atlanta, Davey almost certainly would have won the series title.
And, just as Bobby Allison had been the greatest rival for Richard Petty, Davey had the potential to be Dale Earnhardt’s rival.
But soon, it didn’t matter.
On July 12, 1993, Davey Allison was flying a helicopter — he had just gotten his license — to Talladega Superspeed-way. It was windy, and Davey crashed and suffered head and other injuries. He died a day later, exactly 11 months to the day after Clifford had died.
Again, the family was in pain. Things got even worse after Davey died, and, eventually, Bobby and Judy slipped apart and divorced. Bobby said one problem was the fact that Judy almost had to handle everything alone, but they both agreed that there was a failure to communicate.
"It was a situation that I feel like was compounded by the death of the two boys and our inability to support each other," Bobby said. "On the heels of my own injury, she had to wait on me hand-and-foot to begin with. She had a crummy deal." Once, Bobby was told that people admire him because of his fortitude. He loses his memory, his sons die, he divorces. He goes on. People look at him as a tough man. "Or incredibly stupid," he said, breaking into a grin.
Allison tried race-team ownership for a while, but sponsorship was sparse. Since then, he has done consulting work for a few teams and for an airplane company, and he still would be in the infield on race week.
For years, he has been an icon. For too long, he was also a martyr of sorts.
"I think a lot of people really feel a special friendship and special appreciation of my contribution to what racing has become," Bobby has said. "And it’s emphasized by the fact that I went through those really bad times." Talking about the past helps his memory, but it doesn’t ease the ache. Too many ghosts swirl around the tracks. Talking to Allison, you realize it’s part pleasure and part pain for him.
He enjoys remembering the good times, but he knows they’re gone.
For four years after the divorce, Alli-son searched for peace.
"It’s never easy," he said once, "but it’s something that’s there. Sometimes it seems to ease, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it really hurts. I go through phases, go up and down...." Time can’t heal the pain?
"No," he said, "and it’s not supposed to."
Still, the toughest man in stock-car racing lived on, a minute, a day at a time. He said he survived because of lessons learned from his father, Ed-mond J. Allison Sr., the namesake of Bobby’s older brother, Eddie.
"My dad’s No. 1 lesson to me was to do your best every day," he said. "That was the strongest encouragement he had, period. Take what life brings, and do the best you can. That’s what he did."
But miracles happen, sometimes in strange ways. On May 13, 2000, Liz Alli-son, Davey’s widow, was remarrying in Nashville, Tenn., and Bobby and Judy were there for the wedding. Racing folk were sad that day, because 19-year-old Adam Petty had died the day before in a crash at New Hampshire.
The Allisons, for a moment, relived their own pain with Clifford and Davey.
Naturally, Bobby and Judy gravitated to each other. Judy said she thought they should work as a team again.
"She said to me to put our differences aside and go and try to help the Pettys," Bobby said. "We felt it was exactly the right thing to do." The next day, Bobby and Judy drove to North Carolina for Adam’s funeral.
"We were able to talk about a lot of things that we should have talked about a long time ago," Allison said of the drive. "We talked about the boys. We talked about our life together, our commitment to each other. We talked about all the things that helped our marriage fall on such hard times." Nature took its course.
"It was certainly a horrible way to have a good spin-off," Bobby said, "but that tragedy did bring good fortune to us. The wedding (for Liz) was May 13, and we remarried on July 3." So how are the Allisons doing?
"I don’t know," Bobby said after the remarriage. "I’m certainly doing better than I was.... I’m through the agony part. I’m outside the agony of divorce, because we’re back in the marriage." But he said he knows it’ll take work. For Allison, each day is rehabilitation. He still aches over the loss of his boys, and he says that, even 15 years after Pocono, his memory isn’t perfect.
"I’m still playing with a short deck," he said. "I’ve found a few more cards, but I still don’t have them all. Some things are totally blank.
"People thought I was better than I was. I put on a good face. I smiled and nodded my head, and people thought I was really with it. I wasn’t. The recovery continues on." Same with the marriage.
"I feel better about it," he said. "We both had a lot of horrible times, but we both did grow through the experience. We’ll attempt to treat each other better and be better people." Do they have a better chance this time? The answer was typical Bobby.
"We might," he said. "We’ll see."
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