It’s been four years ago now. Tink and I were attending the annual NASCAR Hall of Fame induction as we normally do with our friends, Darrell and Stevie Waltrip.
Darrell, who was an early inductee, was placed in the front with other Hall of Famers while Tink, Stevie and I were shown to a table about three rows back.
As we sat down, Tink nudged me. “Look who’s at our table.”
Stevie was to my left and two seats to her left was a man who I hesitate to call “elderly.” And once I’ve told you this story, you’re apt to agree.
Since this man was turned to speak to someone, it took a second to recognize him. His trademark red hair had turned gray, but his blue eyes were still bright and his face was still colored with kindness, humor and mischief.
My heart melted. A lump pushed its way up my throat. I placed my hand against my neck and whispered affectionately, “Red Farmer.”
I tried to remember the last time I saw him. Like a television slowly bringing to life its image, it began to inch back to me.
Birmingham, Alabama. St. Aloysius Catholic Church. A gleaming casket in the altar. A line of people, despite tight security, who waited an hour to edge toward the grieving family.
On the second pew sat Red Farmer, a short track racing legend and a beloved man, with his arm in a sling and a bone-deep sadness that drilled its way out from his heart onto his face.
A few days earlier, Red had been in a helicopter crash. Popular driver Davey Allison and his father, Bobby, and Red, who’d been best buddies for decades, had lunched with Red at their favorite meat-and-three diner.
“Hey, I’m gonna fly over to Talladega because Neil (Bonnett) is testin’. Wanna fly over with me?” Davey asked.
Davey, a Daytona 500 winner and an accomplished airplane pilot, had bought a helicopter and began taking lessons. Red didn’t hesitate. Neil was another one of the renowned Alabama Gang.
In less than an hour, Davey was setting the helicopter down outside the Talladega garage when one of the blades caught on the chain link fence and the crash began. Davey lived for a day. Red, with broken ribs, arm and bruises, lived. Mournfully.
I left the altar then dropped on my knees beside Bobby Allison who sat stunned on the front bench. He shook his head. “He was the finest son a man could ever ask for.”
Eleven months to the day earlier, Bobby’s youngest son had been killed in a race crash at Michigan International Speedway. He dropped his head as tears rolled down his cheeks.
In sheer agony, I hugged Bobby and stood up. I saw Red, sitting alone. I dragged slowly over to him and bent down beside him. His pitiful eyes looked into mine as we both shook our heads slowly. No doubt he was remembering all the laughter and good times we’d shared with Davey.
“I loved him,” he said simply.
More than 25 years later, we met again. And this time, it was to honor Davey Allison who was being inducted into the Hall of Fame. Just like that night at St. Aloysius, I went over and squatted down beside Red. I took his freckled hands in mine and reminded him of the old days when we were all together.
His blue eyes twinkled merrily. “We had so much fun. Remember how we laughed?”
A couple of years later, Red Farmer was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame — reunited with his buddy, Bobby Allison, and his beloved Davey. The Alabama Gang back together.
But even better than that?
A friend sent me a photo a few weeks ago with a message, “Red Farmer is starting from the pole at the Talladega short track.”
The best part?
Red Farmer is 90 years old and still taking the green.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.