Dale Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001, is still fresh in the minds of motorsports fans, who will likely always remember where they were when they heard the news. Eight years ago the racing community was rocked by another tragedy, and the shock was especially hard on fans of the famed Alabama Gang.
On July 12, 1993, Neil Bonnett (who later died in a crash at Daytona) was at Talladega Superspeedway to assist his son, David, during a practice session at the 2.66-mile venue. Davey Allison, who had recently purchased a helicopter, decided to pay his friends a visit.
With ageless Red Farmer onboard the craft, the pair made their way from Hueytown, Ala., to Talladega, Ala., and at approximately 3 p.m. Allison attempted to land near the infield media center.
Suddenly, something went terribly wrong. The helicopter made contact with the fence surrounding the media center, lurched, and then crashed to the ground. Farmer was able to crawl from the wreckage and suffered no life-threatening injuries.
Allison, however, was barely clinging to life.
Within 30 minutes, a Lifesaver helicopter crew arrived from Carraway Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham, Ala., and whisked Allison back to their trauma unit. Allison had suffered massive head injuries in the crash and was listed in grave condition. By 7 a.m. on July 13, he was dead.
The reaction to the loss of this young racing hero was similar to that displayed following Earnhardt’s fatal crash. Fans across the country drove with their headlights on as a tribute to Allison, and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame became a focal point of fans wanting to pay their respects.
“We were close to the hospital when we heard about it,” said Jim Norris of Riverside, Calif., who was headed to the Hall of Fame as part of a vacation trip. “Who I really feel sorry for is his mom.”
Davey Allison’s death came almost exactly a year after his brother Clifford was killed in a practice crash at Michigan.
“It’s not like your son or my son got hurt on a bicycle,” Norris said. “They’re gone.”
Mike Helton, current president of NASCAR, who ran Talladega Superspeedway at the time, held a somber press conference the day of Allison’s death.
“Davey was a true seasoned veteran who overcame many difficult moments to create the special memories he leaves with us all,” Helton said. “Davey was a racer, a winner and a friend.”
Just as the world will never know whether Earnhardt would have won his eighth Winston Cup title, Allison’s passing ended a great career that was likely destined for new and brighter horizons.
The son of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, Davey worked at his father’s race shop as a youngster and began his driving career at the age of 18 when he competed at Birmingham International Raceway in 1979. He finished fifth in his first feature, and picked up his first checker in just his sixth start.
The younger Allison graduated to the ARCA, All-Pro, DIRT and ASA series, as well as NASCAR Winston West, Busch, Grand American and DASH. After registering more than 40 wins on short tracks, he won a pair of ARCA races and was named Rookie of the Year in that series in 1984.
A year later Allison debuted in Winston Cup competition, finishing 10th in a Hoss Ellington-owned Chevrolet at Talladega Superspeedway. By the time the year was done, he had won the Winston 500 there and a Dover, Del., event – a pair of victories that propelled him to Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.
In a Winston Cup career that lasted until 1993, he won 19 races, 14 poles and pocketed more than $6 million. Still, he considered his second-place finish to his dad in the 1988 Daytona 500 as one of his biggest thrills.
Davey Allison was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. Other honors throughout his driving days included Comeback Driver of the Year, the Sprint Award, McDonald’s All-Star Team and National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year.
He also won the International Race of Champions title posthumously in 1993, with Terry Labonte driving the final IROC race in his place.
His memory is preserved at Davey Allison Memorial Park, which showcases the Talladega/ Texaco Walk of Fame each year.
Several ARCA teams used the final month of the racing season to put their cars through tests in preparation for the 2002 campaign. One of those test sites was Talladega Superspeedway, and one bystander who had more than a passing interest in the goings-on was Tim Burrell, who drives for Fred Jones Motorsports and just completed a campaign that saw him compete in four ARCA events.
Burrell, who first hooked up with Jones in 1998, is planning to race in all of ARCA’s short track events in 2002, and hopes to run a full season beginning in 2003.
“We ran both the Kentucky races and two other short tracks, and I was really pleased with how things turned out,” said Burrell, an Ohio native who now calls Birmingham, Ala., home. “Those were what I call good ‘seat-of-the-britches’ tracks that gave me an opportunity to get some seat time and feel my way around. Overall, I think we had some good success.”
Burrell’s best finish was a 16th-place showing at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, but he was competitive in the two events at Kentucky Speedway and a short track race at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds.
Like many racing hopefuls, Burrell has found the road to success a rocky one. He had tried to get his ARCA career started in 1998, but the sponsorship money simply wasn’t there. However, he and Jones stuck together and now it appears the two are on the right track.
“We still have a shop off Highway 280 in Sylacauga [Ala.], and that’s our home base,” Burrell said. “Fred never gave up on me, and we knew if we could get the money we could make this work.
“What we did this year was try to get our feet wet a little, and at least ARCA knows who we are now. It’s just a matter of getting more sponsorship dollars so we can run a full schedule.”
Burrell grew up around racing in his native Ohio, getting close to the sport due to his stepfather, Winston Burrell.
“My stepdad was a weekend warrior pit crew guy for guys like Richard Childress and Cecil Gordon back when they used to drive, and I’ve been around racing all my life,” Burrell said. “I’d been racing for 10 years when I decided to move up to ARCA.
Burrell currently lives in Birmingham, but has called both Sylacauga and Talladega home. “I lived in Sylacauga for seven years back in the 1980s, and I also lived in Talladega for a year,” Burrell said. Jones, a Sylacauga businessman, got to know Burrell over the years while the two worked together on short track competition, and decided three years ago they could make a go of the Automobile Racing Club of America circuit.
Jones and Burrell purchased an old Jimmy Spencer car from Travis Carter Motorsports in 1998. It had never been wrecked, and Burrell has continued the streak.
“One of the reasons we stuck to short tracks this year and plan to do the same thing next year is because we can’t afford to tear up a car,” Burrell said. “It still doesn’t have a scratch on it, but if we had taken it here to Talladega or Daytona there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t have been wrecked. But now we’re working on getting a new Taurus for next year and hopefully making a run at Rookie of the Year honors.”
Burrell sat out the final two months of the 2001 season and is getting ready to resume racing next March following the Daytona ARCA event.
“Our plans are all in place, so now we can relax a little and know we’re in good shape for 2002,” Burrell said. “If everything goes well, we’ll be driving ARCA full-time in 2003. That’s a goal I really want to reach.”
Meet the Drivers
Hometown: Fenton, Mo.
If James Brown is the hardest-working man in show business, Schrader is certainly the hardest-working man in racing. A Winston Cup regular since 1985 and the winner of four races, Schrader won a sprint car championship and has competed in USAC, Busch and ARCA events. Even now, he will often race at a dirt track on the Saturday night before a Winston Cup race.