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NASCAR drivers are tough, but also can be touching

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Wednesday, Aug. 01, 2012

For one touching, lump-in-the-throat, tear-evoking, backwards lap Dale Earnhardt’s famous No. 3 Chevrolet was Davey Allison’s No. 28 Ford.

And, alongside, Rusty Wallace’s No. 2 Pontiac became Alan Kulwicki’s No. 7 Ford.

It happened on July 18, 1993 at Pocono Raceway, and the mesmerizing memory of it returns to mind as NASCAR’s Cup Series teams gather at the track in the mountains once again for Sunday’s running of the Pennsylvania 400.

The tribute 19 years ago at the conclusion of the Miller 500 ended what forever will rank high among the saddest and most somber weeks in NASCAR history--July 12-18, 1993.

On that July 12, a Monday, Allison suffered injuries that were not survivable in the crash of a helicopter he was attempting to land at Talladega Superspeedway in his native Alabama. Davey, flying there to watch a practice session, passed away in a Birmingham hospital the next day.

The death of Davey, 32, the son of legendary driver Bobby Allison, was beyond inconceivable. Cruelly, Bobby and his wife Judy had lost a younger son, Clifford, 27, to a crash the previous August during a testing session at Michigan International Speedway.

Kulwicki, the reigning Cup Series champion, had lost his life at age 38 just weeks earlier in ‘93, dying instantly along with three others in the crash of his private plane on April 1 at Blountville, Tenn., while en route to the Food City 500 at Bristol.

“We weren’t over losing Alan yet,” said veteran driver Ken Schrader as he arrived at the 2.5-mile speedway in the Pocono Mountains. “Now, Davey…” Schrader shook his head.

Winning the pole position in qualifying didn’t temper Schrader’s sadness.

“No one wants to be here,” he said.

However, in NASCAR tradition, the show was going on.

But what to do? What to say?

NASCAR and track officials struggled with the situation.

On race morning, a shaken Dr. Joe Mattioli, the speedway’s president and long-time friend of the Allison family, stood at the base of a large, newly-erected flagpole.

“It’s a small gesture,” he said, “but today we are dedicating this flag in the infield as The Davey Allison Flag. At its base will be a permanent plaque…”

The silver-haired Mattioli began to cry at the thought of Davey’s family suffering so much pain, and he couldn’t go on. Thousands of fans shared tears with him.

A large American flag was lowered, raised back to the top, then returned to half-staff against a cloudless, brilliantly blue sky.

A bugler played Taps. As if on cue, the flag, which had been hanging limply, billowed to its full length.

Doyle Ford, at the time the flagman for NASCAR’s top series, watched and waited to go to his stand above the start/finish line.

Normally fun-loving and joking, Ford frowned on this day. “It has been quiet, and rightfully so,” said Ford. “Just like back in April when we went through this with the loss of Alan. Our leadership decided then and now that the best way for the teams to cope is to conform with the usual pattern of operation as much as possible, and that’s what we have done.”

A few hours later, Ford waved his checkered flag over Earnhardt, who streaked across the finish line just 0.78 seconds ahead of Wallace. The race had been a thriller, producing 24 lead changes among 12 drivers. Earnhardt had taken the lead from Wallace on the 183rd of the 200 laps and never let go.

As Wallace finished the “cool down” lap, he spun his Pontiac around in front of the main grandstand, lowered the window net and displayed the No. 7 flag in Kulwicki’s orange and white colors.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt had driven to a stop near the flagstand. Team owner Richard Childress and crew chief Andy Petree led their contingent to the waiting driver, and he was handed a black, gold and red flag with the No. 28 of Allison and his Robert Yates Racing team emblazoned on it. The flag had been in the Pontiac of Kyle Petty. However, when Petty saw he couldn’t win, he decided to transfer the pennant to Earnhardt.

“Meet me at the start/finish line,” Earnhardt had radioed his crew. As they gathered at the car, jackman David Smith led his kneeling teammates in a prayer for the Allison family.

“Everyone was emotional out there,” related gasman Danny “Chocolate” Myers. “I’ve never seen Dale Earnhardt cry until today.”

After Earnhardt fetched the Allison flag, he and Wallace joined to circle the sprawling track clockwise in a great, deeply-moving homage to their lost friends, the flags flapping dramatically as they drove along. Fans mostly stood reverently in place, many with hands over their hearts in salute.

The sight that few knew was coming is frozen in time for me.

“We’re happy about winning the race, but it’s hard with the deaths of Davey hanging in mind,” Earnhardt said during an extremely subdued victor’s interview. “It’s a tough deal. He was a heck of a good friend and racer. Great memories. He could outrun you… I gladly would have run second today to either Davey or Alan if we could have them back.”

And thus a sad, sad day at Pocono for many became the track’s most memorable.

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