It happened recently. The 20th anniversary of the death of stock car racer Davey Allison. Maybe you remember him. Maybe you don’t.
But I shall never forget him.
The first time I met him was when he won an ARCA race at the track then called Atlanta International Raceway. I was a sports writer covering the event. He was happy, but his joy was marred by the death of another driver that day.
The next time I saw him was a couple of years later in Talladega. Never have I seen anyone as happy — just bursting with unbridled joy — as Davey was that day.
Neil Bonnett, part of the Alabama gang which included every racing Allison there was and a short tracker named Red Farmer, had been injured the previous week and was unable to drive his Junior Johnson-owned Chevrolet. He suggested Davey who had never driven in the big leagues but knew every short track turn in the Southeast by memory. Junior agreed and what was resulted was public relations mania for everyone involved. After all, what is a better story than a hometown boy making his debut on the world’s fastest super speedway, filling in for a man who is like an uncle to him, racing against his own father, Bobby?
Though I’m prone to overstatements, it is not one when I say that I have never seen anyone shimmer with such happiness. I’m grinning now just recalling how that tall, scrawny kid with that familiar Allison shoulder hunch did not quit smiling all weekend.
Those few races where he filled in for Bonnett paid off. By the time the next season rolled around, Davey had a full-time ride with a top-notch team and wealthy sponsorships. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 and put the sport on notice: An up-and-coming superstar had arrived. In the next Daytona 500, the Allisons ran one-and-two with Bobby winning.
We became good buddies in those youthful days when life was unblemished by worries and we, like too many kids, thought we were invincible and immortal.
Remember those days? Remember when laughter rang brightly and we thought nothing of throwing all caution to the wind?
Sometimes Davey would sidle up to me in the garage, elbow me then, with that twinkle in his brown eyes inherited from his dad, would tease about one of many somethings. He often strode up behind, pulled my hair then stepped out of sight when I turned around.
“I think,” he said one day, grinning, “that that guy over there likes you.”
He pointed to the fence that separated the garage from the infield. There hanging onto the fencing was a pot-bellied, shirtless man who was far past three sheets in the wind. Davey winked. “He asked me to get your number for him.”
There were many things he teased me about including a prank that Bobby had once played on me. I turned the tables on him one day when he had won the pole in Darlington by telling a story that Bobby had told me about Davey’s first race in Birmingham and all the caution flags he brought out. Davey, usually good-natured, did not laugh when I told that one to the entire press room.
And then he died. It ended there at Talladega where it all started. He crashed a helicopter, landing to see Bonnett test.
Three months earlier another friend, Alan Kulwicki, had died in a plane crash. My spirit was so dark that I wondered if I would ever laugh again. Less than a year later, the amicable Bonnett died, too, during practice for the Daytona 500.
It’s been 20 years without Davey Allison and I, at last, am able to laugh at his antics rather than recalling just the sorrow. And there are the lessons, too, that he taught.
Like, we’re not invincible. And, importantly, use every day to seize that which makes you bubble with happiness.