Bobby and Davey: two of the best (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
The memories here, the memories. So many great ones echoed in huge photographs on the walls.
Junior Johnson, in the original 3, with Holly Farms on the quarter panel, 1964, treaded tires and all. And is that really Turkey Minton changing right-fronts? Where's Herb Nab?
Ned Jarrett, wet towel over his head on a blistering July afternoon back in 1965, sitting on a couple of tires...
David Pearson, taking good ol' 17 across the line in his 1969 championship season. Some say he's the best there ever was in this sport....
Richard Petty, black cowboy boots prominent, sitting on pit wall and listening to advice from Lee, 1967. Ol' Lee was never shy about speaking his peace...
Dale Earnhardt, in his first tour win, here in 1979. Wonder where engine man Lou Larosa is today....
Dale Jr., just 10 years old, in victory lane with his dad in 1985....
Ernie Irvan, in Larry McClure's number four (courtesy of G. C. Spencer), 1991...
Rusty Wallace, in Raymond Beadle's Pontiac, 1990...
Darrell Waltrip, with Junior Johnson, during their reign of terror here, how many wins? Is this the 'Bombs away' mobile?
And of course in a most prominent location, Terry Labonte, 1999, steering madly after Earnhardt's cage-rattling bump....
This place is almost haunted with stock car racing memories, of so many emotions:
Twenty years ago...
The spring and summer of '93 was sad and bittersweet for stock car racing guys.
Larry McReynolds remembers it all, all too well. It was all too personal.
Even now, twenty years later...
The excitement spilling over from that epic 1992 campaign, so many winners, so much high drama, the changing of the guard, and such a great championship finale at Atlanta, all that abruptly changed that late Thursday night in April 1993 when Alan Kulwicki's plane crashed over near Blountville, trying to land after a PR swing, but wings iced over.
The champion was dead. And the next day at this track, cold and rainy, was one of the saddest.
But that wasn't the all of it. That wasn't the start of it. That wasn't the end of it.
Stock car racing at that point was in one of those devastating spirals, like not seen since the mid-1960s, when death had stalked the sport so viciously, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Jimmy Pardue and Billy Wade all killed, in almost maddening sequence.
This spiral began in the summer of 1992 when Clifford Allison was killed at Michigan, and stretched through Neil Bonnett's death at Daytona in early 1994.
Or maybe it started with J. D. McDuffie's 1991 death at Watkins Glen.....
The stretch was brutal.
Bristol Motor Speedway: a kaleidoscope of colors, noise, emotions...and memories (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The sport continued here, of course, the weekend of Kulwicki's death. Peter Jellin and Paul Andrews made one final lap around Bristol in Kulwicki's big-rig before pulling out for the road back to North Carolina. Then action resumed.
Rusty Wallace won that Sunday's race, turned the first Polish victory lap, in honor of his short-track buddy from their ASA days.
Over the rest of the season Wallace and Dale Earnhardt went at each other almost weekly. Mark Martin would go on a four-in-a-row streak. Jeff Gordon was just a rookie and still earning his stripes. Richard Petty was just adjusting to retirement.
Then, in early July, the day after Wallace, Martin and Davey Allison went 1-2-3 in a dicey finish to NASCAR's first Cup race at Bob Bahre's new New Hampshire track, another tragedy.
Davey was in his prime, at 32, challenging for championships, winning big races, driving for one of the top teams in the sport, Robert Yates', and eagerly going head-to-head with Dale Earnhardt.
McReynolds, now a veteran TV analyst for more than 12 years, was then Allison's crew chief. And McReynolds was a tough taskmaster when he was wrenching. Ask Dale Jarrett. McReynolds, perhaps the only man who could really sting Earnhardt...
But the hard emotions of that stretch in 1993 still linger.
McReynolds had taken over as boss of the Allison-Yates team for the spring Darlington race in 1991. They won 11 times together, they became as close as brothers, and their future was so bright.
Then suddenly it was all over.
Davey Allison (Havoline) dogs Rusty Wallace at Loudon, N.H. in mid-summer 1993. It was Allison's last race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In 1992 at Atlanta Allison, Yates and McReynolds came within a hair of winning the championship. They came into the finale atop the standings, but got caught up in a crash barely 100 miles from the finish, when Ernie Irvan blew a tire. And Kulwicki went on to win the title over Bill Elliott and the Junior Johnson team.
While Irvan was a focal point that afternoon at Atlanta, McReynolds says "Where we lost that championship was at Pocono that July, when Darrell (Waltrip) got into Davey, and he barrel-rolled 11 times."
That crash Davey Pocono 1992 left Allison with a broken arm, broken ribs, and a concussion.
"Up to that point we couldn't do a whole lot wrong. We had the competition where we wanted them," McReynolds said.
"But we spent the next two months just trying to get Davey comfortable in the car.
"And by the time we got Davey healthy, we'd gotten behind."
But when Elliott and crew chief Tim Brewer started stumbling that fall, Allison and McReynolds got back in the game. And when Allison won Phoenix, the season's next-to-last race, they were back atop the points, albeit not by much. To win the championship, Allison had to finish at least sixth in the Atlanta finale. And that's where he was running when he crashed; Allison wound up 27th.
"But we beat ourselves," McReynolds says. "Davey liked that Phoenix car so much he wanted us to take it to Atlanta. But it was a special flat-track car, not really suitable for Atlanta. However I said 'Hey, if the driver is comfortable, I'm okay with it.'
"There's where beat ourselves for Atlanta.
"I can remember it like it was yesterday. At Atlanta we'd overcome a lot; we'd led a lap early, we'd overcome that roll of duct tape coming through our nose, and we were running exactly where we needed to be running, sixth or seventh. But we shouldn't have been running there; we should have been upfront, leading. If we'd had the right car there...."
But there was next year looming, and Allison, Yates and McReynolds would surely be in the hunt again.
Bobby Allison gives Davey Allison a Miller shower in Daytona victory lane in February 1988. That July Bobby was nearly killed in a crash at Pocono. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
McReynolds still kicks himself for not being more aggressive over the winter heading into 1993. It took the team until June to get really cranking.
At New Hampshire Allison grabbed the lead late, and was in command when a caution for debris came out 30 miles from the finish.
"Rusty and Mark beat us off pit road, and I knew we were in trouble, because that car we had was a good long-run car, but not good on short runs," McReynolds said. "So we finished third.
"But Davey and I left that race saying 'We're back on track.'"
Allison was to fly the group home, first to Charlotte, then on to Hueytown, Ala. "Robert, me, Joey Knuckles, Raymond Fox, and Bobby."
Davey always sat up front, in the co-pilot's seat.
"But when we went to get on the plane -- and I never knew Davey to do this -- Davey said 'Dad, why don't you fly up front with Sam Nance? I want to sit in the back with the guys and have me a beer.'
"Davey was that relaxed, and relieved that we finally had our train back on track.
"Little did we know that when we got off the plane in Charlotte, that was the last time we'd see him."
Larry McReynolds (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Monday afternoon McReynolds and the crew were in the shop readying the Pocono car. "We were on the surface plate with the car....and Robert came through the door, and he was as white as that freezer.
"He said 'Davey is in trouble.'
"My initial reaction was 'Who has Davey ticked off now?'
"Robert said 'He's crashed that darned helicopter.'"
Allison had flown over to Talladega to watch David Bonnett testing.
Allison had just bought a new helicopter, and it was a powerful one. A Hughes 369HS. Too powerful?
McReynolds demurred. "This was Davey's DNA -- if he went over to clean that Pepsi machine, he wouldn't just wipe it clean, he would flat-out clean it. He didn't know how to do anything that he wouldn't do 100 percent."
But McReynolds, despite Allison's insistence, wasn't interested in flying with Allison in that helicopter.
"He asked me 'Why? I've got my license.'
"I told him 'You do not have enough hours in that helicopter. Yes, you have your 'diploma.' But am I going to get brain surgery from a guy who just walked out of grad school?'"
Allison had only nine hours of flight time at the stick of that model.
Bobby and Davey Allison (Photo: Bobby Allison)
At Yates' words McReynolds and the crew were numbed.
"When you strap your driver in a car, you know he can get hurt, or killed," McReynolds said. "But the last thing you expect is to be in the shop, on a routine Monday, getting ready for the next race, and get a call like that."
Yates didn't have a plane, so Felix Sabates offered his. And they flew straight to the Birmingham hospital.
Red Farmer was on the helicopter with Allison, and injured too, and in the same hospital with Allison.
McReynolds spent an hour with Farmer: "Red kept saying 'Larry, I don't know what happened. We were on the ground, we were on the ground, and I had already unbuckled and was about to step out....and all of a sudden that helicopter started going up again, and oscillating. And I looked over at Davey, and he had that stick and was fighting it with all he had.'"
But it wasn't enough to settle it. And the helicopter landed on its side, Allison's side.
Apparently the rear rotor had tagged the fencing or some wires, and then careened out of control.
Early Tuesday morning Allison died without regaining consciousness.
A spectacular but all too brief career....
Remember that 1988 Daytona 500, that brilliant duel with his father for the win? Snookered by his old man? Lay that spoiler down, boys, lay that spoiler down.
"Liz and Judy Allison asked me if I wanted to see him one more time, but I said no," McReynolds went on. "He was on life support, and he wasn't going to make it.
"I wanted to remember him as we walked off that airplane...."
Davey Allison (C), Larry McReynolds (R), Doug Yates (lower) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The rest of the week was a blur. The church service, the teary graveside burial in Bessemer, with fans stopped on the side of I-20/I-59 to watch...
"We had a very small team, a very close-knit team, and we'd gathered at Robert's house Tuesday night, back from Hueytown. I'm not sure there were any more than 20 of us all together on the team.
"I almost wanted to quit, give up.....
"Davey was my best friend. We had developed a relationship in 1990, when we were parked beside each other every week.
"He and I just immediately hit it off. That day (in 1991) when we first went testing, at Darlington, when I stuck my head in the window to talk with Davey I could tell this was going to be awesome.
"It just clicked; it was there.
"We developed such a friendship, and our wives developed such a friendship, and our boys -- Brandon and Robby -- were born within just a few months of each other. We'd all go to church together. When we'd race at Charlotte, Davey and Liz and the kids would come stay at our house for two weeks.
"We even had the boys baptized together, by Father Grubba. Linda and I are Robby's godparents, and Liz and Davey are Brandon's godparents.
"So when I got that call, it's not just your race driver has been killed, it's your best friend has been killed.
"I was numb.
"But it didn't take us long to gather back together and say 'We've got to move on.'
"Davey would be so pissed at us if we were to roll over...
"We didn't go to Pocono, because we felt it would be so unfair to whoever climbed in that race car like that...with all the hurt in our hearts and all the tears in our eyes.
"Now we knew Davey was probably pissed off at us for that. Because I can remember back in August of '92, when Clifford got killed at Michigan (in Thursday practice), we asked Davey 'Who do you want us to get to drive this car for you?' And he said 'What are you talking about? Let me tell you something -- my brother got killed today, and I'm hurting more than you can ever imagine. But I'm here to do my job, and my job is to try to win this race. Then we can go home and bury Clifford.'
"That was a big part of our inspiration in moving on after Davey's death.
"Davey Allison is still my inspiration today."
After skipping Pocono, McReynolds and Yates returned to the tour the following week at Talladega, with Robby Gordon, then just 24, at the wheel. Gordon, though new to this part of the sport, was running fifth when he had trouble: RobbyGordon Talladega 1993 (at 37:35).
Then Ernie Irvan came onboard, at Darlington. "It was game-on then," McReynolds said. Irvan put McReynolds and Yates back in victory lane quickly, at Martinsville and Charlotte that fall.
"What helped me feel that we were okay, that Davey was okay with this, was after Ernie won Martinsville, when he came down pit road Bobby Allison was out there giving Ernie two thumbs up....and then in victory lane, when Ernie, worn out, pulled his uniform top down, he was wearing a tee-shirt 'In memory of Davey Allison.' Nobody knew he had that tee-shirt on."
Twenty years ago...