NOTE: It has been two decades since Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash in Talladega, Ala. This is the second of a three-part series about the driver.
Father Dale Grubba has a unique relationship with the Allison family.
Known as a sports writer and photographer within the sport of stock car racing, Grubba is also a Catholic priest who often served as counselor for the Allisons and fellow driver Alan Kulwicki.
When asked about Davey Allison, Grubba immediately goes back to the 1992 Winston Cup banquet. Allison led the point standings heading into the final race of the season at Atlanta, only to get caught up in an accident with Ernie Irvan.
It opened the door for Kulwicki to win the championship only four months before he died in a plane crash outside of Bristol. Three months later, Allison died on July 13, 1993 in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.
“I remember sitting with Davey and he was talking about it was Alan’s year,” Grubba said. “He figured in the future he would win one too. I always remembered that, how life sometimes has things we don’t expect and we don’t get to accomplish the things we want to accomplish.”
Grubba saw polar opposites in Kulwicki, a soft-spoken engineer from Wisconsin, and Allison, a vibrant second-generation racer from Alabama. The common thought is both of them would have racked up more wins and championships.
“They were two different personalities, but both were really winners,” Grubba said. “I often wondered if the two of them and Tim Richmond would have lived, how different NASCAR’s champions list would be look. The two of them would have won some more championships and it would have made it a whole different picture.”
Grubba added that race fans seem to keep them frozen in time nand now both would be in their 50’s. Kulwicki was 38 at the time of his death and Allison was 32. Grubba believes they would have enjoyed success beyond their driving careers.
“I think Alan would have gone on to become a team owner and a role like a Hendrick Motorsports because he had the head on his shoulders to do that,” Grubba said. “I think he could have transitioned into that role. I think Davey would probably be in TV and have a prominent role in that because he had the personality. People loved him and whereever he would go, he was electric. We lock them into the time period they were and forget by now, they would have been older and taken different roles in the sport.”
It’s hard to overstate Grubba’s role with the Allison family. Much more than a reporter, he’s been a confidant and trusted friend. He was surprised when an unexpected guest showed up for one of his biggest moments.
“When I was honored by the Madison diocese up in Wisconsin as a leader, Bobby Allison (Davey’s father) took the time to fly up and be with me,” Grubba said. “You send out invitations, but you don’t expect that. It just reminded me of the role I’ve had in his life, and I’m humbled to think of that. I flew out to Allentown (Pa.) a couple of times after Bobby had his accident at Pocono.
“One thing I remember was he was still in the coma. They say one thing you do if you are going to come out of the coma, is you do a coordinated movement. I used to fly with Bobby often and he would always say, ‘Make the Sign of the Cross before we take off.’ He’s lying in a coma and I said, ‘Bobby, remember what you used to do when we flew.’ He made the Sign of the Cross, which was the first coordinated movement he did to show his mind was still functioning. I’ve always treasured that moment more than any other in our experience of being together.”
Grubba added that Davey was famous for being somewhat mischevious, a trait that came from his father. The priest remembered how Bobby Allison would say, “Cheated death again,” at the end of each flight and how he loved to take his passengers on thrill rides.
“Bobby used to do barrel rolls when I was with him,” Grubba said. “After a while, I got to know when he was going to do it. When he would fly out of Talladega or would take off from Slinger or Kenona (short tracks in Wisconsin), he would fly back over the speedways. If you were with him, you knew what was going to happen.
“He used to laugh and tell this story of how he had taken this other priest up who didn’t expect anything. He did this barrel roll and the priest in the middle of it went, ‘Oh, s....’ I always swore to myself, ‘Bobby, I don’t care if we go straight into the side of a mountain, you’re not going to get me to say that and have that story to tell about me forever.”
There was the unmistakable affection which Allison had for his eldest son. The NASCAR Hall of Fame driver was tougher on Davey than his younger son, Clifford, insisting that Davey not hop into a great race car. Instead, Davey had to build his car from the ground up with second-hand pieces.
Still, when it came to racing at the top level, Bobby Allison was selective in the equipment Davey would get in. He ultimately chose Robert Yates, a former engine builder for Bobby Allison, where Davey would apply his trade.
“Bobby was very careful who Davey drove for and he wanted him to have a top ride off the bat,” Grubba said. “He knew if he could get that top ride, he could show his talent and be able to be successful. I had the privilege to be at the some of the short track races Davey drove in Wisconsin and you could tell he really was an up-and-coming star.”