Davey Allison died 22 years ago, a loss that still hurts and haunts

Davey Allison's crowning achievement, winning the 1992 Daytona 500 was just the next step in his quest to be better than his Hall of Fame father Bobby, right. His mother, Judy, was a big supporter of Davey's aspirations, as well. ISC Archives/Getty Images

Liz Mayson was a girl in a country song: little pastel-yellow crop-top T-shirt, cutoff jeans, sun-kissed legs dangling from a tailgate of a truck parked in a cotton field. It was Labor Day weekend, 1988, deep in the South Carolina low country, September air as thick as a bull's neck and still as a statue.

What little breeze did kick up from time to time felt like a hair dryer.

She'd never been so hot, so she couldn't fathom this man walking her way dressed head-to-toe in black, a man she presumed must be the biggest Texaco fan on Earth. Everything he wore, gaudy belt buckle, trucker hat and corduroy pants included, read TEXACO in large block letters.

He didn't say hello. He didn't ask her name. He didn't introduce himself. He simply asked if she was married.

She laughed a hearty no, just as a group of event organizers for the Tiny Lund Memorial race ran up and interrupted the meeting: Mr. Allison, it's time to ride.

The event was a fundraiser held annually at Summerville Speedway, on the same weekend as the Winston Cup Series' Southern 500 at venerable Darlington Raceway, just up the road two hours in the Pee Dee region. To boost attendance at Summerville, race officials invited NASCAR stars to attend. Rusty Wallace came. Phil Parsons and Rodney Combs, too.

And then there was this mysterious man in black.

Corduroy pants. In August. In oppressive South Carolina humidity. Liz would later learn that spoke to the man's naive nerdy side, the vulnerability that made him so different and so special. She, and scores of others, would never meet anyone else like Davey Allison.

Liz lived in Charleston and had little interest in auto racing, but her friend was dating one of the sons of the speedway track owners, the Powells, and invited her to tag along. It would be serendipitous.

"He handed me his hat, asked if I'd hold it for him, and then he walked off," Liz laughs now. "All the sudden all of these people came over and just flooded me, asking 'How'd he qualify at Darlington?' I didn't know what in the world they were talking about."

After the race, the man returned to retrieve his hat and collect a phone number. Unsure, Liz gave him her work number, and the next day switched on the Winston Cup show to learn who this man was.

The buzz around him intrigued her.

"Everyone was so excited that I was 'with him.' I wasn't with him! I was just holding his hat!" she laughed harder. "We started a friendship. He called every day just to chat. I was a good sounding board because I was so removed from everything he was experiencing in his life."

Allison was experiencing a meteoric rise to NASCAR stardom in his first full season of Winston Cup competition. By that time, he was 27 years old and a three-time Cup winner. The next weekend in Richmond, Virginia, he would win for the fourth time.

He was the son of a legend, fiercely driven to become one on his own.

He adored his father, Bobby, like no one else -- but wanted nothing worse than to best his father. It was like many father-son relationships, Liz said, in that Davey didn't always get the acknowledgement for achievement that he'd hoped for.

Part of his greatness was that Bobby made him work for it. It drove him.

"At the time, I didn't totally understand it," Liz said. "It was this intense drive to be better. With time, I realized that, for him, if he was better than Bobby Allison, he'd be the best ever, in his mind. He was intensely driven to be better."

Davey was reared in racing -- born Feb. 25, 1961, in Hollywood, Florida, on the eve of his father's first Daytona 500 start. He watched closely as Bobby Allison won 84 races (he'll tell you 85) at NASCAR's highest level -- good enough for fourth on the career wins list -- and the adoration of legions.

Davey studied his father's career from the time he was a toddler, idolizing him, propped up between Mom and Dad on the bench seat of a pickup in a makeshift car seat Judy fashioned, babbling the throaty sounds of revving race engines.

"He was my little buddy from really early on," Bobby Allison said. "He would sit on that seat beside me, those little eyes just wide open, looking around. And the first noise I ever heard out of him, other than a baby crying, was 'Uddn, Uddn.' I said, 'That boy is all right!' From 2 years old on, he wanted to be with me, go with me and be around me wherever I went."

Throughout his childhood and teen years, Davey was obsessed with racing. Once, while in grade school at St. Aloysius Catholic in Bessemer, Alabama, he struggled to pay attention and became a distraction for the class. Rather than focus on the lesson, Davey was busy drawing race cars.

Judy went to meet with his teacher -- a nun, Bobby noted -- to assess the situation. The teacher was naturally frustrated and said she had taken to making Davey count apples and bananas. Judy suggested she have him count race cars instead.

Before long, Davey was an A student.

By middle school, he wanted desperately to race, but Judy demanded he earn a high school diploma first. This made him an even more determined student. Racing was the mission. So he ultimately took summer school between his junior and senior years of high school, so as to graduate a semester early -- just in time for racing season.

"He was really wrapped up in the racing thing," Bobby said. "His first Limited Sportsman car was built out of a car that [Bobby's brother] Donnie had run. He gave the basic pieces to Davey, and Davey had to put it all together.

"The first night he was going to run, it was time to go to the racetrack and I said, 'Davey! Get that thing loaded and get to the track!' And he says, 'Nah, Dad. I can't go. I can't go.' And I said, 'Well, why not!' He said, 'It's not painted!'

"I said, 'Davey, they all look good in Victory Lane. Load that thing up and go.'"

Davey just grinned that grin. And off he went to Birmingham International Raceway. Judy attended his racing debut.

"Judy calls, 10 or 11 o'clock that Friday night, and she said, 'He really did good!'" Bobby said, starting to chuckle. "Then she said, 'He only spun out three times!'"

Two weeks later, Bobby said, Davey went to Victory Lane for the first time in his life. Some reports say he won in his sixth start. That matters not. One thing is for certain: By 1983, his talent was obvious. He won often at Birmingham. And, in 1985, only six years after his racing debut, he was racing at NASCAR's pinnacle: Winston Cup.

"His whole progression was like that," Bobby said. "As he moved up through the classes on the short tracks, he stayed really focused on what he was doing and what he needed to do that job."

Davey was as smart as he was driven. He had keen resources at his disposal. Donnie was a 10-time Winston Cup winner, famous for "The Fight," postrace fisticuffs backing up Bobby with Cale Yarborough after the 1979 Daytona 500. It shot NASCAR racing from regional obscurity to national phenomenon overnight.

His father's friends, Neil Bonnett and Red Farmer -- both Cup winners -- were always around, too. And there was always Dad.

"One of the neatest things a father could ever hear from his son, no matter what the circumstances, is 'Dad, how can I do this better?'" Bobby said. "That was so neat for me. So super special."

Despite the name and its fame, Davey had to scrap for his opportunities. He never lost the edge that came with the effort.

"Up until the week before he died, he still said, 'Man, I need to pinch myself,'" Liz said. "He still couldn't believe he was good enough at driving a race car to be at the level he was at. And having the amount of fans he had was icing on the cake.

"He felt like he was living a fairy-tale life, but it was anything but a fairy-tale life. He had a hard road. There was no silver spoon in his mouth. It was a really different type of competition, an intense competitive side with his dad. The norm would be like, 'Yeah, he wants to be as good as his dad.' Well, no. He wanted to be better than his dad."

Driving and striving

Former Winston Cup team owner Robert Yates, owner of the No. 28 Ford Thunderbirds Davey Allison drove to immortality, is quite certain of Davey's potential.

"He would've been up there with Jimmie Johnson -- he'd have been as good as anybody, ever," Yates said. "On driving alone, I'm not sure he couldn't outperform any of them. All of them. Anybody. Ever. He was amazing."

Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Larry McReynolds, who served as Allison's crew chief for nearly three full seasons, knew instantly. The first time he worked with Allison was a test session at Darlington. He'd left Kenny Bernstein Racing, a team he built and watched grow into a winning organization, to work with this young man. It was a gutsy move for McReynolds and his family.

"We didn't have cellphones back then, so I could not wait until the lunch break to go find a pay phone to call [wife] Linda and tell her just how special this was going be," McReynolds said. "We talk about chemistry between driver and crew chief; I knew the first time out, when he came in and I dropped that window net, and I looked in his eyes and he looked in mine, this was going to be a really special deal."

"It was incredibly gratifying to see his success," Bobby Allison added. "He worked. Davey had a little brother, Clifford. Clifford was four years younger than Davey. Clifford could ride his motorcycle, a 125 Harley, on the back wheel all the way to school, 2½, three blocks, with one stop sign and two turns, a right and a left. He could go all the way and never let the front wheel come down. Davey didn't ever even attempt to do that kind of stuff.

"Their personalities... "

His voice tails off to a pause. Then it resumes slowly, barely audible.

"The irony of life was our two sons: Davey worked, worked, worked, and got killed playing. And Clifford played, played, played, and got killed working."

July 12, 1993

Legendary Alabama racer Red Farmer is in his mid-80s now, laid up with a sling on his arm after a complete shoulder reconstruction. He can't race for six more weeks, so he is left to his thoughts. It's been a tough month for Red. His wife of 65 years, Joan, just passed on. And today is the anniversary of the worst moment of his life.

His words are the knife to his memory's flint.

Davey was like a son to Red. Red was there when Bobby was off racing Matadors to keep the family's belly full. Red chuckles at the memory of shooing Davey and Clifford out of the way. As youngsters, the brothers raced tricycles through the race shop, always in the way.

He also chuckles at Davey's persistence. But the smile is brief.

On July 12, 1993, Red and Davey were preparing the front setup of a Busch Series car when Davey learned that Bonnett's son, David, was testing a Busch car at Talladega. Davey wanted to hop in the chopper and go. Red didn't.

He wanted nothing to do with it. He was against the helicopter, period. He didn't believe in something made to fly that didn't have wings. At the time, Davey had been flying helicopters for 18 months. He had owned his for three weeks.

"He said, 'I'm your boss! I said get in!'" Farmer said. "That was the first time I'd ever been in the thing. It was a funny feeling. I didn't like it. We got to the racetrack and could see the cars, and we got ready to put down in the parking lot behind the media center, which was four times wider than the helicopter.

"We were 30 feet from the fence, the tips of the [rotors]. We got within four or five feet of the ground, and all the sudden it shot back up in the air and just went crazy."

Davey tried to control the aircraft, Farmer said. He worked the pedals, the collective and the cyclic "stick." Farmer, not capable of assisting, braced himself on the outside shell of the cockpit. Then the helicopter turned upside down and hit a fence.

The engine was running full throttle. The main rotors had broken off. The glass on Farmer's side was busted out. Eventually, Farmer said, a mechanic from the nearby airport was summoned to turn off the engine.

"The next thing I remember was being upside down, with Davey above me," Farmer said. "About that time, I heard Neil Bonnett hollering at me. He crawled into the opening on my side, pulled me out of the busted side. I told them to go back and get Davey. He was hurt, bleeding real bad."

Liz swears the helicopter buzzed her car earlier that day. It was a Monday, midafternoon, and she was in a rush, rolling west down Interstate 20 somewhere along the remote stretch of Alabama highway that connects Talladega and Birmingham.

The chopper's trajectory was odd, too low it seemed. But it was here-and-gone and she gave it little more thought. It wasn't the helicopter, the one she so despised, anyway. Davey, now her husband and father of their two children, had said himself that morning that he wouldn't fly that day.

Like Farmer, Liz hated Davey's helicopter. It took him away from the family. It was entirely too expensive. It was dangerous. So when she asked him to fly her to a work function on the morning of July 12, 1993, it was completely out of character for her.

"He was the perfect kid, the perfect person. I look forward to seeing him again someday."
Robert Yates

She wasn't feeling well, battling the final stages of a stomach flu that had forced her to skip Davey's Winston Cup race the previous day at New Hampshire International Speedway. She wanted to get to and from work as quickly as possible.

But Davey couldn't fly her that day, she said, saying he needed to spend the day at the race team's shop. In turn, Liz drove the family's blue Ford Windstar to Anniston, Alabama. The day proved longer than expected, and if she didn't hustle back home to Hueytown, dinner would be late to the table.

Davey had requested country-style venison that evening, and he would soon barrel through the front door to eat it, young Robbie, the couple's 1-year-old son, in tow. Davey took Robbie with him that day. The plan, as Liz recalled, was for him and Robbie to have some breakfast, he would drop Robbie off at the church baby sitter, then do what he did every Monday: head off to the Farmhouse Restaurant in Bessemer for a weekly racing gab session with a group of old-timers who adored him.

They were all in their 70s and 80s. Davey was barely 30. Liz never met a single one of them. It was the consummate example of Davey's uniqueness, the rare gift to make everyone in every room he entered feel important.

He gave freely of man's most precious offering: time.

"He was so good to people," Yates said. "He gave everybody eye contact, most a handshake. It was always genuine, and it was amazing to watch him, how he made people feel so special. He was the perfect kid, the perfect person.

"I look forward to seeing him again someday."

Gone too soon

Davey Allison was pronounced dead on Tuesday morning, July 13, 1993. He was 32 years old.

NASCAR president "Bill France Jr. called me at the shop after lunch," Yates said, voice trailing off further with each word. "I don't know how I stood up. My knees trembled, then buckled. I couldn't believe it.

"But I could imagine exactly what went on. He got in a tight place and just didn't have the experience."

According to reports after the crash, Davey became interested in helicopters after being airlifted from racetracks after accidents -- like at The Winston in May 1992. He won that night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in thrilling fashion, by an inch at the finish line over Kyle Petty. It was NASCAR's first big-track night race, labeled "One Hot Night." As Allison took the checkered flag Petty wrecked him. Davey hit the concrete retaining wall driver's-side and was knocked out cold.

He never went to Victory Lane. When McReynolds hopped in the ambulance with him, Davey asked over and over what happened. McReynolds replied over and over, "We won." Allison responded over and over, "You're s---ting me."

"Davey Allison was absolutely my best friend," McReynolds said. "I can still see Davey and I climbing in and out a Little Tykes playhouse with our two girls, Brooke and Krista, having a big ol' time.

"So when I got the call that Davey had been severely injured in that helicopter accident, not only did I lose the race car driver that had been a part of putting me on the NASCAR map but I lost my best friend.

"I've got a lot of close friends, but I don't know that I've ever had a friendship with anybody in the last 20 years since we lost Davey Allison. Maybe it's because I'm a little bit afraid to get close to someone because of what happened that day when I got that phone call that Davey had been killed."

Monday, 22 years after Davey's death, Liz is convinced that it was indeed his helicopter she encountered while driving down I-20 that July day. There weren't many helicopters around those parts in those days, she reasoned, and certainly not on that particular flight path.

Davey Allison won the 1992 Daytona 500, a lifelong dream for a fearless dreamer. He achieved more than he ever considered possible. He won 19 races in 191 Winston Cup Series starts, including five in a 1992 season that nearly ended with a championship.

"He had so much talent," Yates said. "He paid close attention to what his dad had done -- and his dad was awesome. He wanted to do a couple things different than his dad. He felt like he could beat his dad, straight up.

"But he also appreciated him so much. And he could do it. He made the job easy and fun for us all. He was always a team member. Always. Always. When we lose, we lose together. When we win, we win together. I had days I worried he'd leave. But he always said, 'Nope. I'm not going anywhere. I'm with you. I'm here.' He was so loyal."

When Yates initially hired Allison -- at Ranier-Lundy Racing for owner Harry Ranier and the No. 28 car -- he and Ranier had a difficult choice to make. The car wasn't sponsored, and Rusty Wallace was also available, was willing and had a sponsor in his pocket.

But Yates wanted Allison. He appreciated Wallace's talent and the sponsorship was enticing, but he felt more comfortable with the young man he'd known from birth.

"He was like a son to me," Yates said. "It felt like home."

In 1988, Yates bought Ranier-Lundy to start his own Winston Cup team, Robert Yates Racing. Together, he and Allison were perennial title contenders, winning multiple races annually to become an industry leader.

When Davey died, the future was uncertain at best. Yates wondered whether the doors to his shop would close for good. The Texaco sponsorship, he said, was contingent on Allison being the driver of the car. And if Texaco left, the team would fold. There were just 10 employees at the time.

But, truth told, that wasn't remotely near the forefront of Yates' mind. He was most concerned for Bobby and Judy, who were still grieving from the loss of their younger son, Clifford, just 11 months earlier. On Aug. 13, 1992, Clifford died after a crash in Busch Series race practice at Michigan International Speedway.

Now Davey.

"Clifford got killed first, and Davey took that really hard," Bobby Allison said. " 'Dad, I should have done more, should have helped him more.' [And I said,] 'No, Davey, you've done a lot for him, and I'm sure he did appreciate that. We cannot undo what's happened. So just enjoy the good parts.' He did make me feel like he was doing that, too."

How did he possibly move forward?

"Losing your kids is the toughest thing you could imagine. Tough, tough, tough. Just by the grace of God and plenty of help from family and friends. Recognizing that life does have to go on and today's work has to get done," Bobby said.

"Man. No parent should ever have to go through that."

How often does Bobby think of Davey?

"Once a day, all day long."

When Liz got home from Anniston that Monday evening, she had no idea what the next hours, days or years would hold. She walked through the front door and hurriedly began preparing dinner -- so quickly that she left the door open. Shortly thereafter, she heard shuffling feet. This wasn't unusual. Random members of Davey's NASCAR Busch Series team would often wander in and out of the house.

"I remember yelling, 'Hey! Who is it?' and nobody said anything," Liz recalls now. "So I went around the corner, and a couple of his crew guys were there. I could tell by the looks on their faces. They said, 'We need you to come with us.' And I was like, 'What's going on?' They just said again, 'We just need you to come with us.'"

She pauses.

More than two decades have passed, but that unwelcome but all too familiar knot still ties up her stomach.

She thought it was the kids, Robbie or 3-year-old Krista. Body and mind lived a cruel dichotomy just then. The movement through the moment felt like slow motion. Meanwhile, her mind raced with a million thoughts a moment. Confusion displaced clarity.

She never considered it could be Davey.

When Liz arrived at the race shop, Bobby and Judy were there. Judy sobbed. Liz lost it. Robbie was supposed to be with Davey that day. She couldn't see him or hold him or hug him, and couldn't be convinced that he wasn't with his father.

They got in cars and drove, Liz expecting to head east to Talladega. But when the caravan exited toward Birmingham, toward Carraway Methodist Medical Center, she knew it was very bad.

What she didn't know in the coming days was how to move forward. It was the most overwhelming time of her life. She was just 28. An immature 28, she says. Her rock, gone. Davey did everything. Everyone around her meant well, but the environment was stifling.

Patti Wheeler, a television executive in the racing industry, called Liz with an offer: If you need to get out and get away, let me know. I will help. Wheeler had a place in Nashville. Liz didn't immediately consider the offer, but she quickly realized she needed space.

"She arranged for us to stay at the Opryland Hotel, in a place that was secluded so we could just hunker down and not be bothered," Liz said. "I thought, how am I going to break back out into life, leaving [Alabama]? How will I do this? What will this look like? I was so consumed with everything."

Decisions had to be made. Tributes to Davey were coming. And Liz couldn't even write a check for groceries. She had no credit cards. Davey and his business manager always handled everything.

"I didn't even know how to pay for something," Liz said. "It was a really tough time."

The Winston Cup Series rolled back into Talladega 12 days after Davey died. Davey made his series debut there in 1985. He won his first race there in 1987, in one of the most infamous days in NASCAR history.

It was on that day in that race, the Winston 500, that Bobby went airborne into the catch fence in a horrific and spectacular wreck, resulting in spectator injuries and, ultimately, the installation of carburetor restrictor plates to cut horsepower and reduce speeds at Daytona and Talladega. Davey saw his father's wreck in his mirror. He became the first rookie to win a Cup race in six seasons.

Along with his father, uncle and friends, Davey made a legend at Talladega.

The track, in conjunction with NASCAR, would plan a tribute. Someone would stand before the hundreds of thousands in attendance and say a few heartfelt words about Davey Allison. And Uncle Donnie would man his nephew's No. 28 for one last ride.

Liz was in Nashville with the kids, and Bill France Jr. called to discuss the plan, and see about his friend. He and Liz were tight. And when he asked who she felt should address Davey's legion, there was no hesitation: No one would address that crowd but her.

She didn't know what to say or how to say it, and she'd always had stage fright when it came to crowds. But she packed up the kids and returned to Birmingham to a mountain of sympathy cards and well wishes. One of those was from an old friend in Charleston. Inside was a poem. She would read it aloud for her husband:

Please don't sing sad songs for me ...
Forget your grief and fears ...
For, I am in a perfect place ...
Away from pain and tears ...

I'm far away from hunger and hurt and want and pride ...
I have a place in Heaven, with the Master at my side ...
My life on Earth was very good, as Earthly lives can go ...
But paradise is so much more than anyone could know ...

My heart is filled with happiness and sweet rejoicing, too ...
To walk with God is perfect peace, a joy forever new.

"I didn't even know they were doing a tribute to him that day, that Uncle Donnie was driving the car on the track," Liz said. "All of that was a complete surprise to me. I look back on it now and I know it was meant to be.

"It was definitely a spiritual experience because I didn't even know the words coming out of my mouth. I don't know how in the world I did that. I couldn't do it today."

It was five full years before Liz could re-engage in the sport. In 1998, NASCAR was celebrating the 50 greatest drivers of its first 50 years of racing. Davey was most certainly one of them. France called Liz and said, "Come on home. We love you, and we're here for you."

So she did. Everyone told Liz how badly France wanted her and the kids there.

"I remember being back at the track and feeling like I'd come home," Liz said. "That's when it really stood out to me, more than any other time, that, man, this is a family. They don't just walk away when things don't turn out quite the way we think it's supposed to."

On the evening of July 13, 2015, Liz Allison stared at a photograph of Davey and her at the 1993 Daytona 500. Their smiles were so carefree.

"We had no idea how life was about to change," she said. "I white-knuckle every July. I had to finally resort to the fact that it always stings -- doesn't matter how many years go by."

No matter how many years go by, Farmer still stops to look at the photograph of Davey that hangs in his shop.

"It's still rough," Farmer said. "I imagine what he'd have been today, if he was still with us, how many championships he'd have won and how many races he'd have won. He was special. I'm glad I was able to know him."