The Day After Loudon
You remember where you were when you heard the news of Davey Allison’s helicopter crash. It was the day after Loudon. It was one of those times. We have all had too many of those memories.
July 12, 1993, the day after Loudon, had already been a roller coaster day, full of twists and turns, peaks and harrowing drops. My wife was having “routine” surgery that day. “Routine” they say, but when it’s you or a loved one is there really anything “routine” about it? We had already gone through the sleepless night, the nervous early morning ride to Lexington, the frustration finding a parking spot and the crowded check-in.
The first drop came when they took her away to be prepped. There was brief relief when we were briefly reunited and could talk, hold hands say our “I-love-yous” and “See-you-laters.” The next drop came when they wheeled her away to surgery.
Then came the dreaded wait. The not knowing. The clock ticking on the waiting room wall like the clacking of the chain taking you to the top of the next big hill of the roller coaster ride. Would there be relief when they called your name or would it be a huge drop? All you can do is wait... and pray.
A few long hours later they finally called my name and told me the surgery is over, she is doing fine and as soon as we get her in a room, you can see her. What a relief! As time passes, I noticed family after family who came in with us had now left and the “not knowing” resurfaced and the clock ticking again turns into chain clacking as I climbed another dreaded hill. Then the next anxious wait begins, torn between having to know and not wanting to know.
I finally go back to the desk and ask for a status update. You told me at 10:30 she was in recovery and they were waiting on a room. It’s now 3:30. What’s going on?
The next words are ones you never want to hear...
“Oh Mr. Nance, no one told you? We lost your wife.”
A horrifying drop like no other. Lost her? How is that possible? You told me she was fine.
My expression of disbelief and horror told her all she needed to know. She quickly corrected her accurate but incredibly poor choice of words. “When she left recovery we didn’t have a room to move her to, then we did. Then we moved her from there to another room. We’re at a shift change and haven’t received that information yet. She’s fine... we just don’t know where she is now...”
Up another hill and now another wait until my MIA wife could be located and we be reunited. I’m ready to go searching myself. Another 45 minutes pass before she is found and I get to see her. There was a mix of relief and frustration bordering on anger, had it not been for the fact that she was OK and we were together.
After we talked a bit, she said she was tired and rolled over to take a much needed nap. Thinking the roller coaster ride was finally over, I grabbed the remote and turned to ESPN for some much needed normalcy. It was then I first heard about Davey’s crash.
I had topped another unexpected hill and was hurtling down again.
All I could do is pray. That’s all I had done all day it seemed, but I had been around helicopters enough to know this didn’t sound good. Friends who had worked on them in Vietnam had told me helicopters were nothing but 10,000 spare parts flying in close formation. I always thought they were pulling my leg but there was nothing humorous about them now. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was sickening... almost as bad as when I heard the word “lost” earlier.
As I spent my long night at the hospital at my wife’s side my roller coaster ride continued as my thoughts went from the peaks of having my wife resting in a Lexington hospital after successful surgery to the horrifying drop going on 400 miles away in the Birmingham trauma unit. I could not imagine what Davey’s family, friends and those close to him were going through.
I kept telling myself he can pull through. He’s an Allison. He’s Bobby’s son. He’s tough. Just look what he went through last season. Bristol-hard crash-injured shoulder-relief driver to finish the race. Next week-a win at North Wilkesboro. Martinsville-hard crash-injured ribs. Next week-a win at Talladega. The All Star race followed and we know how that played out with Davey winning but crashing hard at the line. Was unconscious when he was extracted from the car and celebrated the win in the hospital instead of Victory Lane. Next week, finished fourth after 600 grueling miles at Charlotte. Through it he all he was sitting atop the points, a position he’d held since opening the season with his win at Daytona.
Any way you cut it, that’s tough.
He was still in the lead when he went into Pocono, dominating the race until a violent lap 150 wreck saw him airlifted out with a severe concussion, broken arm, wrist, collarbone and severely bruised eyes. His 33rd place finish forces him out of the points lead for the first time and Talladega was next up.
The 1992 Diehard 500 would be the last time I would be at a track to see Davey race. He was in no shape to even be in the car, much less race Talladega, but that was a different time, not like today where the CEO can make exceptions for injured drivers and allow them to compete for the championship even if they missed races. Back then, if you didn’t start the race you didn’t collect points. If you got in the car and couldn’t get out on your own you didn’t get the points. The entire week was focused on would he race or not.
Davey wanted the points lead back and needed all the points he could get. So with Velcro on his driving glove, shifter knob and steering wheel to help him hold his right arm that was in a cast in the correct position, Davey crawled in and strapped in. NASCAR wanted him to complete one lap and turn the car over to relief driver, Bobby Hillin, Jr. Davey wanted to go to the first caution to give his team the best chance to win. You see those were the days before Lucky Dogs and Wave Arounds and if you lost a lap at Talladega then, the only way to get it back was to race past the leader. When the field rolled off pit road all eyes were on the #28 to see what Davey could and would do.
I can’t ever remember wanting to see a driver not get in a car and once in do I ever remember wanting to see one get out of a car, but that was the emotion that day.
The green flag dropped and Davey did his best. Lap One - he stayed on the track. Lap Two. Lap Three, on he went. Lap Six - caution, rain in Turn One. A brief sprinkle, just enough to bring out the caution and allow him to bring the #28 to pit road. Maybe Alan was looking down that day.
He still had to get out of the car. His exit was brutally slow and painful. You could almost feel 100,000 fans willing him out of the car. When he dragged himself out and sat down on the pit wall the cheer was deafening. You would have thought he’d won the race and in my mind he had. He was out of the car, clear of danger and had turned his very fast car over to a capable relief driver who could finish the job.
Bobby would finish third, earning enough points to put Davey back in the points lead.
If you never saw it or too much time has passed here is a link to the race including the pre-race with a lengthy discussion on Pocono.
(Note-It’s worth watching the first few minutes to see the broadcast team of Ken Squire, Ned Jarrett, Neil Bonnett, and Chris Economaki. The young Mike Joy sounds a little different with this group than his current team)
Davey was tough. Please let him pull through this.
It was a long night with my attention split between making sure my wife was comfortable and resting and keeping an eye on the TV for the latest news from Birmingham. As the night dragged into early morning, it was becoming more difficult to keep my spirits up as the drop seemed never-ending. My thoughts drifted back to Atlanta-the wreck that knocked him out of the Championship, playing over and over in my mind. My thoughts were not on the emotional drop that occurred when Ernie Irvan collected him, or Benny Parsons trying to put a positive spin on it, that it wasn’t that bad, trying to maintain hope that it wasn’t over. No, what kept going through my mind were the words of Bob Jenkins as Davey waved to the crowd and climbed in the ambulance...
You can click here and scroll to 3:54 to hear Jenkins’ words that when I heard him say them the first time caused my stomach to drop beyond even further.
“There will be other years, there’s no question about that”
Those words had haunted me since I first heard them that day. They did again this day after Loudon. They still do to this day.
As the early morning light broke through, I kept asking how could this be, how did this happen? It was just a few hours earlier he had the inaugural race at Loudon in hand, a win thwarted by a late caution that allowed Rusty Wallace to get by for the win. Mark Martin slipped by for second leaving Davey with a third place finish.
Loudon would be the last time we would ever see him race. His final post-race interview was classic Davey. The smile. The hope. The shout-out to Krista... and Robbie and Liz. The plans for bringing a new car back next season.
It closed with Randy Pemberton’s ”See you next week.”
Before the morning was over there would be no “other years”, no “next season”, no “see you next week” for Davey Allison. Before the morning was over Davey Allison was gone. He had received his earthly Checkered Flag. His race here was over.
The day after Loudon had been a massive roller coaster ride-two intertwined; one with my wife and one with Davey. They each had dramatically different endings.
For the last twenty-five years, the day after Loudon has been a constant reminder to me that we are all living on the White Flag lap. Our Green and White Flags dropped when we were first held up by our heels and smacked on our backsides so we would scream and take our first breath. Since that time we have been on that White Flag lap, racing back to our Finish Line... wherever that may be.
We get one Lap around before our Checkered Flag falls. There are no Caution flags, no Overtimes, no Restarts, No Lucky Dogs or Wave Arounds. There are many twists and turns. Rarely do we know what is around the next bend. But it’s our race, on our track... one lap.
If there is something we need to do, want to do it, if we want to make a move, now is the time. Live, love, make a difference while we can.
Like that day after Loudon twenty-five years ago, we never know when our Flag will fall.
Till then, race on.
(Editor’s note: Some ten years after Davey's death, a ruling was issued by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) concerning the crash. The Board found the cause of the crash to be "a stress break in the collective yoke", the device that controls the pitch of the rotor blades on the helicopter. It was not pilot error!)