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Feature Writing
Second Place
Mike Hembree, USA Today

Hueytown's Heyday Now History

HUEYTOWN, Ala.- Once stock car racing bedrock, Hueytown, Alabama now is a town of vanished heroes.

For decades, beginning in the early 1960s, Hueytown, located 14 miles southwest of Birmingham, was a legitimate auto racing capital. Few towns – even much larger ones -- could boast its motorsports bloodlines, thanks largely to the biggest Alabama racer of all – Bobby Allison.

A native of Miami, Fla., Allison moved to greener pastures as the 1950s were turning into the ’60s. Alabama and the surrounding countryside had more tracks – and, importantly, tracks that paid much more – than south Florida, and Allison led a pilgrimage from the tropics to the heart of the Deep South to take advantage of the racing landscape.

Two of Bobby’s brothers – fellow driver Donnie and mechanic Eddie – followed him across state lines, as did Charles “Red” Farmer, another Miami-area driver who saw the light – and the money. “I made $600 in two nights and thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” said Farmer, an electrician by trade but a racer by desire.

“The community embraced us instantly,” said Eddie Allison. “That’s why we’re here. They were so good to us. Everybody said, ‘Come on over and eat supper at our house.’ ”

Ed and Kittie Allison, parents of the Allison brothers, joined the Florida exodus. Later, promising young driver Neil Bonnett moved to Hueytown from Ensley, a few miles away.

In short order, the Allisons and Farmer scorched tracks in Montgomery, Birmingham, Mayfield, Huntsville and Macon, Ga., among others. “We came in and took their money,” Eddie Allison remembered, smiling.

When they showed up on a hot summer night to challenge the locals, towing their racers on banged-up trailers, word spread through the pits. The Alabama Gang is here. It was like seeing the Visigoths coming down from the mountains.

Now, that’s mostly in the past. The Alabama Gang now is one. Ironically, the one is Farmer, 84 years old, in his 70th season of racing, still making hot laps at area dirt tracks.

Farmer continues to race from a small garage behind his house on Foust Avenue in Hueytown. The others are gone – Bobby Allison to a house on Lake Norman near Charlotte, N.C., Donnie Allison to Salisbury, N.C. Bonnett and Clifford Allison, Bobby’s younger son, died racing, and Davey Allison, Bobby’s first son and the man who probably would have carried the Alabama Gang imprint far into the future, died of injuries suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

There have been other drivers across the years to race with the Alabama Gang tag, but the success of the originals hasn’t been duplicated.

Hueytown, recognized across the racing world because of the success of the Allison clan, still makes note of its racing heritage. But the shouting died down years ago as the Allisons plowed through a staggering list of tragedies – the deaths of Davey, Clifford and Bonnett, a near-fatal crash by Bobby, an accident that effectively ended Donnie’s career.

“Home of the Alabama Gang” reads the sign at the entrance to town, but the Allison racing operation that once called Hueytown home is no more, and racers and fans no longer gather at the Iceberg, a popular local diner and headquarters for motorsports talk. It has been shuttered for years.

“It’s not a racing town any more,” said Bonnie Allison Farr, Bobby’s daughter. She lives in the “big house,” the one Bobby and his wife, Judy, once called home in Hueytown, there at the very end of Church Avenue, in the heart of the Allison compound.

“People stop at the auto parts stores and ask where the shop is, and they’ll ask them what they’re talking about,” she said.

Eddie Allison, now 80 and still residing in Hueytown, acknowledged changing times.

“It took a long time for it to fade away, but it did,” he said. “But when Bobby comes home, people are so good to him. Is it still a racing capital? Sort of. It’s more wannabe now than reality, but people still talk.”

The first crushing blow was Bobby’s brutal accident at Pocono in 1988. His car was T-boned on the track, and he almost died on a dark day that led to years of rehabilitation and family financial troubles.

Then, Clifford died instantly in a hard crash into the wall at the Michigan track in 1992. He was only 27, beginning to find his racing legs. Davey worked harder; some in the Allison circle say Clifford had more raw talent.

“I was there at Michigan that day,” Farmer said. “Bobby got up, walked out of the pit gate and out pit road. He walked up to Clifford’s car and just looked in the window. He turned around and walked back and sat down on the top of the toolbox. He just sat there and held his head. I’ll never forget the look on his face. I just put my arm around him.”

The hard rains had only started.

In July 1993, Davey died a day after crashing a helicopter he was piloting. Farmer was aboard as they tried to land in the Talladega track infield. Farmer suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone. Davey never regained consciousness.

Before the crash, Davey had visited the Iceberg for what became his final meal.

Davey, 32, was the bright, shining star of the Alabama Gang and was viewed by the racing establishment as a certain future champion. He had the determination of his father – each of them could have worn NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER T-shirts every day, and meant it – and a glowing personality that attracted fans across Alabama and far beyond.

Davey’s death plunged Alabama into a state of grief not seen since revered football coach Bear Bryant died.

Like Clifford, Davey was buried in Highland Memorial Gardens in nearby Bessemer, and fans still visit, some leaving 28 cents – the number of his car – on his grave marker.

Bonnett died in February 1994, crashing at Daytona while trying to make a comeback from previous racing injuries. Bonnett’s death hit other drivers hard, especially close friend Dale Earnhardt Sr., who would die at the same track seven years later.

Now, in Hueytown, there is an Allison-Bonnett Memorial Drive, a Red Farmer Drive and a Davey Allison Boulevard. Just inside the entrance to the local Waffle House, there is a sign: Red Farmer’s Corner.

Bobby and Donnie gained enough traction to move into Cup racing in the 1960s, and Bobby built a series of shop buildings on his property on Church Avenue.

Mom and Pop Allison lived across the street, Pop often checking in on his boys and Kittie traveling the streets of Hueytown selling Avon products. Parents of 13 children, three of whom died of cystic fibrosis before reaching adulthood, they were the heart of a strong Catholic family.

Now, the buildings that turned out winning race cars are mostly storage facilities for plaques, trophies, banners and memorabilia from the Allisons’ racing exploits, along with a fading collection of car parts and tools. No one is fishing at the small pond Bobby built to provide some relaxation in the middle of a long day at the shop.

“Sometimes it gets hard to stay here with all the memories around you,” said Bonnie Farr. “That’s why I moved my office to the house” up the hill.

During the busy years, she sometimes was an “engine runner” for her dad, driving back and forth to Mississippi to make deliveries.

She said an occasional fan still wanders down narrow Church Avenue, looking for the Allison race shop or hoping for a glance at something related to the Alabama Gang.

“It’s not anything like it used to be, though,” she said. “One couple came through about 10 years ago, and when the man found out who I was, he just cried and cried. It’s heartwarming, but it brings back all your own raw emotions, too.”

Farmer, a nominee for this year’s NASCAR Hall of Fame class (along with Davey Allison), soldiers on, still enjoying life as a competitive racer. He won’t quit until other drivers – and life – start lapping him, he said. It’s fun, he said, but still not the same.

“Nobody is ever going to have a gang like we had,” Farmer said. “We had a relationship you won’t find anywhere else.”