ONE afternoon at Daytona International Raceway, Bobby Allison sat on a bench with me, following an accident that had cost the life of a young unknown rookie named Ricky Knotts, and tried to explain how men can race cars in the presence of death.
"Once, I was driving around this race track in a modified race, when my best friend, Don McTavish crashed into the wall," Allison said, softly recalling the 1969 incident. "He had hit the wall with such force, the front end of the car had been torn away completely and he was just sitting there in his driver's seat, with nothing in front of him for protection. The cars were all blasting through the fourth turn and there was no way everyone was going to miss him. And everyone didn't.
"I was physically sick and I was crying as I drove on around the race track that day, but I couldn't stop. There was no way to stop. Stopping wouldn't have helped. It would have been like giving in to death. All I could do was drive on and pray for him."
Last Thursday, Bobby Allison lost his youngest son, Clifford, 27, in a crash during practice at Michigan International Raceway.
Friday, Allison's oldest son Davey, 31, his broken arm and wrist in casts from a horrendous 11-flip crash a month ago at Pocono, Pa., crawled into his race car and qualified third for Sunday's Champion Spark Plug 400 Winston Cup race. Sunday, Davey Allison raced. Yesterday, he returned to Hueytown, Ala., for his brother's services.
All of it made me think again of that February day with Allison so long ago. It also brought back memories of the Formula One season in 1978, when I talked to a sorrowful Mario Andretti, just back from Europe where he had won the F-1 championship the same day his teammate and friend Ronnie Peterson had been killed at the start of the race that had wrapped up the F-1 title. Andretti, his heart in pieces, had continued to drive.
And more recently there is the memory of last May's Indianapolis 500, when Michael Andretti drove on after seeing both his father, Mario, and his brother, Jeff, seriously injured in crashes. He drove, knowing his father was alive, but not knowing anything about the condition of his younger brother, knowing only that Jeff's car was totally destroyed.
Each of them had the same response, when asked why he hadn't parked the car.
"I just had to keep on driving," they said.
But why? Those of us on the sidelines have a very difficult time understanding the commitment that goes into a sport that on any given day, at any moment can rip out your soul.
A non-racer looks at the Allison family and wonders how they can go on. Bobby, who won the Winston Cup championship in 1983, survived a life-threatening 1988 crash at Pocono, Pa. That crash ended his driving career. He still limps and still suffers equilibrium problems. Bobby's brother Donnie saw his career cut short due to several severe accidents, and Davey Allison, who is battling for this year's Winston Cup title, has endured through four terrorizing smash-ups this season that have caused neck, rib, arm, hand, collarbone and head injuries.
And yet the family continues to race.
The Andrettis' commitment to the sport also seems beyond understanding. Mario has seen friends die and his brother, Aldo, suffer monstrous crashes. Mario Andretti's youngest son Jeff is living in an apartment in Indianapolis so he can be close to Dr. Terry Trammell, a noted orthopedic surgeon who is helping him recover from broken feet and legs sustained at Indy. And yet Jeff maintains his enthusiasm and his determination to be back in a race car by December.
"You hate to see anything like this happen," said Winston cup driver Hut Stricklin, who drives for Bobby Allison and is married to the latter's niece Pam. "We all know it can happen, but don't think it can happen to us. I'm sure Clifford felt the same way . . . It just happened at the wrong time."
Any time, of course, is the wrong time. But these men who are auto racers drive on. Why? Yes, big money and fame are motivations. But the bottom line seems to be that they love what they're doing. They know the risks and are willing to take them.
"A person can be killed anywhere," Bobby Allison said to me that February day. "The thing you always have to remember is no one makes anyone get into the race car. Everyone out here knows what could happen and accepts it. Racers love racing it's that simple."
To auto racers it is the key element. To die doing something they didn't like, that would be tragedy. To die in the midst of the sport they love is living life to its fullest.
Still, it seems cold comfort to the families left behind.
Sandra McKee covers auto racing for The Sun.