When I stopped by to visit Talladega Superspeedway, my drive took me past the wildly popular Talladega Short Track, a one-third mile, red clay oval that is located within spitting distance of the big track.
Two things made me smile as I passed: the red tire marks where cars had pulled out from the track onto the asphalt road the night before and the thought of Red Farmer.
I love Red Farmer and I have for 30 years.
Red, now 84, is a racer’s racer. He was part of the Hueytown gang that included the Allison family and Neil Bonnett. While those guys all went on to racing success in the big leagues, Red chose to stay in the trenches of grassroot racing and run short tracks across the Southeast. He won somewhere around a thousand races and became a legend.
It was Davey Allison who introduced me to the affable red-headed, freckled-face Red when he was the crew chief for Davey’s car in the Busch Series. Davey loved Red. His face lit up every time Red walked up. The love was mutual.
Red was in the helicopter with Davey when he was landing outside the garage area at the Talladega big track. They had jumped in the copter and flew over to watch Bonnett test on a Monday morning. The gang was sticking together, as always. There was a terrible accident that day, July 12, 1993. Davey suffered severe head trauma and died the next day in a Birmingham hospital. Red suffered a broken collar bone and ribs and a shattered heart.
At St. Aloysius Catholic Church, a still shaken and hurting Red sat in a pew near the front where Davey’s red cherry coffin set while the Allisons greeted mourners. I stopped in the aisle, knelt by Red and took his hands.
“He loved you so much,” I whispered. “You brought him such happiness.”
Tears fell down Red’s cheeks and he nodded. “He was like my own son.”
So, I thought of the gang -- particularly Red -- as I drove past. A couple of weeks later, I was talking to my friend, Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Our friendship goes back to our days of youth, innocence and inexperience. We love to chat and catch up on our mutual friends and memories.
Laughing, I said, “I went by Talladega Short Track on a Sunday afternoon and the highway was solid red dirt from all the cars pulling out. I always think about Red Farmer. You know, he used to own Talladega as a driver. It was hard to beat him there.”
“Whattaya mean ‘used to’?” Ed asked. “He still does.”
Ed went on to tell me that when Red was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, the ceremony was arranged so that Red went first. This was necessitated by the fact that Red was running over at the short track that night and needed to get back to race. While the other inductees showed up in suits and ties, Red appropriately received his induction while wearing his racing suit.
Red is 84 and still racing weekly at the Talladega Short Track. Last year, he finished third in the season standings. When he had heart surgery, the doctor said, “No driving for 48 hours.” Sixty hours later, he was behind the wheel of his race car where he won the heat race and put his car on the front row for the feature race.
It’s hard to find a tough man like Red Farmer in today’s times. A man who will chose a course of lesser fame, less money and a lot more hard work. He’s a warrior.
Davey would be so proud of his mentor. I can see him now, grinning, slapping Red on the back and then hugging him tight.
And I will always remember the tears in Red’s eyes caused by Davey’s loss.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter. Her column appears Tuesdays.