Robert Yates Racing and the team’s talented young driver Davey Allison made their official debut at the 1989 Daytona 500. Things got off to an inauspicious start. Davey was running well when Geoff Bodine got into his rear bumper and sent the No. 28 car spinning. The car rolled, but came down on all four wheels, and Allison limped off to the pits, where the crew was able to repair the car well enough to get him back out there for points. Allison finished 25th in that year’s race. After the race Davey had some harsh words for Bodine and a short scuffle broke out. It was just the beginning of a lot of frustration for what amounted to a new team going through some teething pains. There were some bright spots, like a sixth at Rockingham and a second at Darlington, but there were also an uncharacteristic amount of engine failures that season, as Yates tried to adjust to his dual role as team owner and engine man, both of which are full time jobs.
The first win for RYR took place at the Talladega race in May, when Allison stormed into the lead with nine to go and held off a determined Terry Labonte driving one of Junior Johnson’s Fords. Yates seemed to have found something special as far as restrictor-plate engines, as evidenced by the teams other win that season at the Firecracker 400 in July. Even with two wins, the season was a disappointment. Davey ended up 11th in points and led 13 races, one less than the year before. Yates and Allison wanted to move forward, not backwards.
The 1990 season got off to an even slower, and somewhat bizarre start. After a pair of 20th-place finishes at Daytona and Richmond, Davey had to sit out most of the Rockingham event. He had been roughhousing with a couple guys on the crew, and for reasons never explained suddenly passed out. The doctors could find no reason for the incident, but NASCAR didn’t want Allison behind the wheel until he was checked further. They finally allowed him to drive a single lap so he would earn the team points, but after that he had to have Hut Stricklin hop in the car.
The Yates team got a much needed shot in the arm at the spring race in Bristol. Things did not look good that weekend, with a poor qualifying effort earning Davey a backstraight pit stall. Things got still worse when Allison was unable to avoid the spinning car of Robby Moroso and severely damaged the right-side sheetmetal on his Ford. In the pits, Yates made a crucial call not to come in for tires under a late caution so as not to surrender track position to those drivers pitted on the front straight. Mark Martin had fresh tires and was coming hard in those waning laps of the race. Davey was driving his guts out on badly worn tires, and coming out of turn 4 for the final time the two Fords were side-by-side drag racing to the line. It was one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. The record books say eight inches, though it looked like less, but Allison prevailed to win that day. After that great win though, the team seemed to sink back into a swamp of mediocrity, with only a scattered top 10 now and then to show for their efforts.
At Dover that spring the car was so bad, Davey wore himself out just trying to keep it out of the wall, and had to call on Stricklin for relief again. There was growing dissension in the team, as the finger-pointing game began to try to assign blame. Allison went on record as wanting a new crew chief, and even made an uncharacteristic remark that he might quit if something wasn’t done soon. That got Yate’s attention. That July, Jake Elder was hired on as crew chief for the team. While the season didn’t turn around immediately, Davey did win the fall race at Charlotte that year, and gave credit for the win to his new crew chief. Still on the whole the 1990 season was a disaster. Allison wound up 13th in points with only five top-five finishes.
At the season finale at Atlanta in 1990 tragedy had struck. Mike Ritch, a member of Bill Elliott‘s over the wall crew had been struck and killed when Ricky Rudd lost control coming into the pits and slammed Bill’s car. That tragedy would eventually lead to the pit-road speed limits we have today. Before adopting those speed limits, NASCAR tried a bunch of different solutions, none of which worked, and all of which made a real mess of the beginning of the 1991 season. At that year’s Daytona 500, teams were not allowed to change tires under caution, leaving drivers out there on badly worn rubber hoping for the best. Allison was just one of numerous victims of the rule. Dale Earnhardt was leading the race as the pack took the green after a caution with five laps to go. Ernie Irvan passed Dale, and Davey tried to do the same. The two were running side-by-side for several laps until Dale’s Chevy got loose on his worn tires and knocked into Allison’s Ford. Allison went spinning into the wall, and had to settle for 15th. The season just didn’t get better. The team went four races with a finish no better than 12th and a dead-last finish at Atlanta after a crash. Jake Elder was a great crew chief, but not the easiest guy in the world to get along with, as evidenced by his handle, “Suitcase Jake.” He had quit or been fired from dozens of teams. He and Allison were fighting, and Jake threatened to quit. Robert Yates made the decision to let him go.
And that is when something magical happened. To replace Elder, Yates hired an owlish looking man with thinning blonde hair, more given to scribbling meticulous notes into his charts than to jawboning about fishing. That man was Larry McRenyolds, and he was the third leg of the triangle that completed the Davey Allison-Robert Yates combination. All three men respected and liked each other immensely, and that elusive “chemistry” was finally achieved. With McReynolds on board, RYR would move up the ladder from an occasional contender to the top tier of the sport. At the very first race Larry was calling the shots, Allison finished second at Darlington. That began a string of top-10 finishes that did not end until Talladega later that spring, when Davey got caught up in the infamous mess caused by “Swervin Irvan’s” impatience, that would later lead to Ernie publicly apologizing to the other drivers.
The team bounced back in fine style, winning the next race on the schedule, the prestigious World 600. Chevys had been dominating all season, so starting with that race NASCAR allowed the Fords to run an inch higher decklid. The Fords were back in the game, and Davey was leading the pack.
The team’s next win was surrounded by controversy which would dog Davey the rest of his career. Allison was leading at the road course in Sonoma with two laps to go, when Rudd got into his rear bumper and Davey spun. Racing or rough driving? It was a judgment call, but NASCAR decided Rudd had been a little too aggressive and black-flagged him. Allison was able to save the car and take the checkers, though Rudd actually crossed the line first. Rudd was furious as were a lot of fans. Davey was put in the position where he had to defend his victory by pointing out he had indeed had the faster of the two cars. Fortunately, Allison and RYR were able to put that ugliness behind them by winning the event at Michigan only two races later, and backing that up with a third at the Firecracker 400.
A little controversy was stirred up again at Talladega that July, leaving Davey as hot as the weather in Alabama. Earnhardt was leading, but Davey was leading a charge of fleet Fords hooked up in the draft, preparing to take the lead. Unfortunately, after running Dale down, some members of that pack of Fords broke ranks, and the resultant scrambling amidst blue oval running mates allowed Earnhardt to cruise onto victory while Davey backslid to ninth. After the race, Allison was so incensed he punched the wall of his transporter. It was not the smartest move of his career. The transporter was not injured, but Allison broke several bones in his hand.
Allison was able to put that frustration quickly behind him. He finished second by inches to Dale Jarrett at Michigan and second again to Harry Gant at Richmond. A second at the Charlotte fall race was the spark that ignited the RYR team. Allison responded by winning the next two races in a row, Rockingham and Phoenix. That moved him into second place in the points, and while Earnhardt had already wrapped up the title, considering the turmoil at the beginning of the year it was no small achievement for the No. 28 team to be that high in the points.
Allison did have a close call the Phoenix weekend, though not on the track. Flying to Arizona the cabin of his private plane started filling up with smoke. The smoke was caused by insulation that had fallen out of place and was laying on the heater, but after Allison did an emergency landing, he found one of the engines had also sprung an oil leak, and was minutes from failing. For those who know how this story ends it was a chilling harbinger of things to come.
At the final race that season Davey had a strong car, but it suddenly began cutting out on him. He dashed into the pits where the problem was diagnosed as a dead battery. It took seven laps to make repairs, and while Davey made up three of them on the track, he was obviously never a contender for the win, and his 17th-place finish caused by that freak problem dropped him to third in the points, a mere four points behind Rudd in second. Again for those familiar with Davey’s finish in the season-ender at Atlanta in 1992, it was a bad omen of things to come. Still five wins, 12 top fives, third in the points and having led in a remarkable 23 out of 29 events was a sign that Davey, Robert and Larry were going to have to be reckoned with as title contenders in 1992.
They say racing is a roller coaster of a sport. One week you are at the top of the heap, and the next week you are in the valley. One week racing will make you the king, and the next week it will break your heart. Be that as it may, for Davey Allison 1992 carried some career highs, but also some gut-wrenching lows almost beyond what any human being should be called upon to endure.
You can’t start a season out much better than winning the Daytona 500. Allison followed in his father’s footsteps into the hallowed victory lane in Daytona, by escaping a wreck triggered when Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Irvan got together at the front of the pack. In all, 14 cars were involved including not only those listed above, but other favorites including Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jarrett, Ken Schrader, Martin and Darrell Waltrip. Allison snaked his way through the mess and held off a late race challenge to take the win.
Elliott recovered from the disappointment of Daytona with four straight wins. Davey was never far behind, with a second, third and two fourth-place finishes to his credit, allowing him to stay comfortably in command of the points standings.
Bristol was a different story. After being penalized by NASCAR for stopping beyond his pit box, Allison’s Ford blew an oil line sending him hard into the wall, injuring his shoulder. Despite the pain, he climbed back into the car at North Wilkesboro, and despite spinning out went on to edge Wallace out for the win. A week later, his luck changed again. A blown tire at Martinsville sent Allison into the wall hard yet again, breaking some ribs. And of course, his luck changed again and Davey won the next race of the season at Talladega. A pattern was emerging. Davey could very likely win the championship… if he survived the season. In addition to holding onto the points lead despite the misfortunes, the wins at Daytona and Talladega put Davey in position to claim the Winston Million. His first chance would come at the World 600 in Charlotte that May. RYR arrived loaded for bear, carrying Davey’s favorite car, the storied old 007.
The 1992 Winston was the first one held under the lights. Humpy Wheeler had prepared a fireworks show for the fans after the race, but nothing matched the fireworks on the track that night. Earnhardt and Kyle Petty were involved in a fierce battle to win the final segment of the race, with Allison waiting back in third to capitalize if the other drivers were to get into each other. Dale and Kyle did indeed wreck, and good fortune allowed Davey to win the Winston. But in the blink of an eye his luck changed again. Kyle’s out of control Pontiac drilled the No. 28 Ford just past the start-finish line, putting Allison hard into the wall. 007 was totaled and Davey suffered a bruised lung, severe concussion and abdominal bruising. He had to be transported by helicopter to the hospital and never saw victory lane.
Allison would later tell family members and close friends that wreck had had a profound effect on his life. After the crash, Davey said he had an out-of-body experience and felt he was hovering above the car, watching himself be removed from the wreck, convinced he was dead. That eerie experience changed Davey’s life. He had a fashion-model beautiful wife he had been neglecting. He had two wonderful children he did not spend enough time with. He had drifted slowly away from the core of his life, his Faith in God. After that night Allison vowed to get his priorities back in order. Those who knew him said he much more at ease after that evening, almost serene. It was a blessing, because with the cards fate still had to deal Davey, it was going to take every bit of faith and the support of his family to endure it.
The fact Allison was able to drive in the next week’s 600 and run the whole race was a miracle in and of itself, but he was not a factor. His chance at the Winston Million would have to wait until Darlington. Still, he hung onto that precious points lead by finishing fourth. Another win at Michigan helped open his gap over Elliott just a bit.
It seemed like Allison was due a good weekend at Pocono that July. He won the pole for the event, and led early and often, his car showing a lot of strength. A miscue on pit road put Davey towards the back of the pack for a restart after a caution, but he was still on the lead lap and there was plenty of racing left ahead to allow him to reassert himself. He never got that chance. While charging through the pack, Davey attempted to go low on Waltrip, who did not see him. DW moved down the track and the two cars hit. What followed was one of the most brutal accidents in NASCAR history. Allison’s black Ford launched into a sickening series of flips, shedding parts with each tumble, and almost landing on a safety truck before coming down on a guard rail. Watching the wreck, it was impossible to believe anyone could have survived it. Somehow, Allison had lived, but not without injury. He had suffered head injuries and a broken arm, wrist and collar bone. Chillingly he was taken by helicopter to the same hospital his father had been transported after Bobby‘s career ending injuries. Of lesser consequence, for the first time that season, Davey had lost the points lead to Elliott.
While Davey’s determination allowed him to start the next two races, the extent of his injuries would not allow him to run the entire race. At Talladega, Bobby Hillin stepped into the car as a relief driver and did a masterful job finishing third. In doing so, Hillin put Davey back into the points lead. Things did not go as well at Watkins Glen, and the team of Allison and veteran road racer Dorsey Schroeder were credited with 20th.
Allison was slated to drive his first full race the next weekend at Michigan. But that weekend a terrible tragedy struck the racing community, and the Allison family in particular. Clifford Allison, Davey’s little brother, was killed in a crash while practicing for the Busch Series event at the track. Davey was right there and tried to run to his brother’s car, but was kept from doing so by track officials. They told him to go to the hospital. It was only once Davey and Liz had reached the hospital they learned Clifford had died while being transported there. Body still badly bruised and heartbroken, somehow Davey still climbed in his car that Sunday, and managed a fifth-place finish. As soon as the race was over he headed for his plane, and home to his family to bury Clifford.
While nothing could compare with the loss of his brother it seemed fate had chosen Davey Allison as her whipping boy that summer. Allison wrecked again at Bristol while running third. Then came the Southern 500 and Allison’s chance at the Winston Million.
Allison clearly had the muscle to win that race. He led three times and was never far from the front of the pack. But dark skies were threatening, and it became apparent rain might fall on the parade. Allison tried to stay out on the track as long as possible, fearing the race would be red flagged, but when Martin chose to dive into the pits, the rest of the front-runners hands were forced. It was either pit for tires or allow Martin to build up a hopeless lead on fresh rubber. Waltrip decided to gamble in the opposite direction, thinking that the race would end early, and trying to stretch out his fuel load to remain out on the track as the leader. And of course the rain did come, a lap before DW would have run out of gas.
Wishing to get in all the race if at all possible NASCAR held off on declaring the race official as long as possible hoping the rain would let up and the racing would resume. Those who watched the race on TV that day recall a hilarious exchange between Darrell and Davey in the garage area as they waited for the weather to break. Asked what they both thought the chances of the race resuming were, Darrell looked up at the sky and replied it looked like the storm was getting worse and they ought to call the race immediately so everyone could go home. Davey looked up at the same sky and joked, “I think I see some clearing to the West. It’s going to get better.” And he managed to smile. You had to wonder how this poor guy who just buried a brother, was still healing from some bad injuries, and was watching his chance at a million dollars running down the storm drains could possibly smile. But that was Davey Allison. When asked how much fuel he had left in the car, DW winked and said “Oh, about a million dollars worth” and Davey Allison managed to laugh out loud. The rain continued, and the race was called official as a result. Allison was credited with a fifth-place finish.
The points race that year was the best one in decades. Allison and Elliott scrapped for the title week in and week out. Both knew their share of good and bad fortune as the season wound down. But it seemed fate felt she owed Davey one at Phoenix. Not only did Davey win convincingly, Elliott lost an engine and wound up 31st.
The blown engine actually dropped Bill to third in the points, with Alan Kulwicki taking over second. But the championship was Allison’s to lose. He needed to finish fifth or better to take the title, even if Alan won the race and led the most laps. Fate had one more joker in the deck for Allison. He was running right where he needed to be in fifth in the waning stages of the race, when Irvan lost control. Davey got swept up into the wreck and crashed hard into the inside wall. While the No. 28 crew would repair the car, Davey’s title hopes were dashed. He could only watch from the sidelines as Kulwicki edged out Elliott for the Winston Cup championship Davey had wanted so badly and struggled so valiantly to win. “It wasn’t meant to be. We’ll get ’em next year.” Davey told reporters, and he managed a weak smile for his fans.
The 1993 season got off to a slow start for Davey and RYR, finishing three laps off the pace at Daytona and enduring a number of other substandard runs. Still, it was an up and down battle for most drivers that year, and Allison hung in there in the points. The team had enough confidence they knew they weren’t out of it by any means. As proof they needed to look no further than Richmond, where Allison took a convincing win. I don’t recall what Davey had to say that day in victory lane. If I recall correctly, I was helping a buddy replace a timing chain in his van, and we had the TV on in the corner of the garage. We sat down and had a beer to see the end of the race, then got back to work so he would be able to use his truck for work Monday. It didn’t seem to matter. Davey was such a talented driver certainly he had a lot more victory lane celebrations ahead of him. Richmond was in fact Davey’s last win.
The entire racing community was shocked and saddened that spring by the loss of our champion Kulwicki in an airplane crash. But the show went on that week at Bristol, and Davey finished fifth.
That summer a brutal heat wave engulfed the northeast of the United States. It was over 100 degrees in New Hampshire for the inaugural Winston Cup race at Loudon. Davey was hot that day as well, though he lost second place in the closing laps and came home third behind Wallace and Martin. The series was slated to return to Pocono for the second event there that year, the following week. Davey told his friends he would see them that weekend, and flew off back to Alabama to be with his family.
If you were a fan of Allison’s or even just a fan of racing in those days, you’ll probably remember where you were when you heard the news. I had just gotten off work early, and was heading home to pack for a week’s vacation in the Poconos that naturally included the race. I got gas at the corner filling station, a Texaco naturally, and had bought a Davey Allison diecast that had just arrived at the station. When I got home my roommate had the TV on to ESPN and told me Davey had been hurt in a helicopter crash. The next update was grim. Davey had received extensive head injuries and had not regained consciousness. The doctors were not optimistic. I remember my eyes misted up, and I remember praying that Davey would be spared, wondering how much grief any family could be asked to endure, and adding a prayer for the Allison family.
The turbojet helicopter Davey had been piloting was a newer purchase. Outside of racing, aircraft were one of Davey’s few passions in life. His wife Liz had never much cared for the chopper and asked Davey to please be careful with it. Davey was not yet fully accredited in the helicopter. But he had one of those rare afternoons off, and called family friend Red Farmer to ask if he would like to fly to Talladega to watch another close family friend, Neil Bonnett, practicing for a return to Winston Cup racing, and Neil’s son practice to make his debut in a Busch car. Farmer agreed and the pair took the helicopter to the track. They were within feet of setting down when the chopper suddenly went out of control. perhaps because the tail rotor had struck a fence. The chopper went up a bit, but lower than Davey’s car had flown during the Pocono race, and crashed down on it’s side. Red frantically hollered to Davey they had to get out of there in case of fire, but got no response. Davey Allison never regained consciousness.
A man must not presume to know the mind of the Lord, and early the next morning Davey Allison passed away at the age of 32. Once again the racing community prepared to assemble for the burial of one of the sports favorite sons. Though obviously grief-stricken, Bobby Allison’s faith was not shaken. “I been working all my life to get to Heaven,” he told a family friend. “Now my two boys have gone and beat me there.”
Before the funeral there was the matter of a race that weekend at Pocono. The Robert Yates team withdrew from the event. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” Yates said quietly while grieving the loss of not just a driver but a friend.
I debated myself whether I still wanted to go to that race. In the end I decided I would. It seemed every car and camper in the lot had a black 28 flag hanging from it, a sort of funeral shroud, NASCAR style. Many cars also still carried the number 7 flag as well. It had been a tough year to be a race fan. The American flag flew at half mast and there was a brief ceremony in honor of Davey prior to the race. Then 40 cars took to the track, not to mourn the loss of Davey Allison, but to celebrate the sport he had devoted his life to. It was one whale of a race, with Earnhardt just holding off Wallace and Elliott to take the win. After the win, Dale spun his car around, and the entire RCR crew joined him on the track for a moment of prayer to their fallen friend. Afterwards, Dale unfurled a big 28 flag in honor of Davey, and did a slow reverse victory lap in honor of Alan. There wasn’t a dry eye in the stands, and while he was not everyone’s favorite driver, Dale earned a lot of respect and gratitude that afternoon at Pocono. In the end, Davey would have been embarrassed by the big fuss prior to the race, but he had to be grinning watching a snarling racecar and the assembled fans cheer his memory.
It has been 14 years now, and time has dried away the tears, if the pain still aches time to time. If you believe as Davey did, he is in a better place now, the ultimate victory lane. There’s no telling how differently the record books would read if Davey was still with us, but one thing is for certain. Whether he had just won a race, or finished dead last, Davey would be smiling as he walked from the track.
The one thing to do now is to retain memories and try to prepare ourselves to live every day the best we can. Sometimes we have to play the cards we are dealt.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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