NASCAR's top series, the Winston Cup, was catching fire as a major league sport in the early 1990s. The Star Tribune wanted to join in, although we didn't have what you would call a racing expert.

So, when the boss wanted a national story, I was generally the volunteer.

On July 12, 1993, Davey Allison -- a Cup racing star -- crashed his helicopter and died the next morning. The crash occurred at Talladega Speedway, as Davey and Red Farmer, an old-time racer, were arriving at the track.

They were there to watch David Bonnett, son of driving great Neil, take some practice laps. Young Bonnett was hoping to get up to speed for the upcoming Busch race at the superspeedway.

The summer races at Talladega were set for the weekend of July 23-25. I spent a couple of days in Hueytown, Ala. -- ancestral home of the Allisons, Bonnetts and Farmer -- and then went to Talladega.

The Cup race in the summer steam of Alabama turned into a marathon. There was a long delay when Neil Bonnett, coming back after missing four years because of a head injury, put a car owned by Dale Earnhardt into the catch fence in front of the grandstand. There was another delay when journeyman Stanley Smith dang near killed himself on the near turn.

Earnhardt claimed his sixth victory in 18 races that day. With a 30-race schedule, he was on the way to the sixth of his seven Winston Cup championships.

The Intimidator also had won the Busch race on Saturday, leading to this postrace quote on Sunday: "I sold out of T-shirts and we won two races, so I'm happy about the weekend."

A reporter said to Earnhardt: "Did you sell enough T-shirts and win enough races to pay for Neil's car?"

Earnhardt winced and said: "We'll have to see about that."

He then added: "People call racing a high-risk sport. I don't think it is high risk. Davey didn't die racing. Stanley crashed doing what he wanted to do more than anything else in the world ...

"Neil was miserable when he wasn't racing. Neil had a great time today, even with the crash."

Six months later, Bonnett was going to try it again -- to make the field for the 1994 Daytona 500. He died in a crash while practicing at that superspeedway.

There were other calamities to follow. The bloodiest year was 2000, when a driver for all of NASCAR's top three series died. The death of Adam Petty, the 19-year-old future star of that great racing family, during practice in New Hampshire was a horrendous blow.

Yet, the faithful gathered again in Daytona in February 2001 to resume NASCAR's strange tradition -- that its No. 1 event is the season opener. There was a near-calamity with 25 laps remaining, when Tony Stewart went airborne on the back straightaway and his orange Pontiac landed on the hood of teammate Bobby Labonte's car.

There was fire and clouds of dust and debris. And it was cleaned up, and the survivors started racing again, and down the stretch they came.

Michael Waltrip, given a new chance by Dale Earnhardt Sr., was going to win a Cup race for the first time in 463 starts. He was being chased to the finish by Dale Earnhardt Jr., also in a car owned by his daddy.

Behind them, coming out of the last turn, there was a tangle and Dale Sr., in his Richard Childress No. 3 Chevy, went straight into the wall. Waltrip was celebrating in Victory Lane. Dale Jr. was nearby talking about a great race. And 500 yards away, medics were arriving to find Dale Sr. dead.

Junior went sprinting toward that spot on the track when he heard his father's predicament was serious. The tens of thousands leaving the track were unaware that Earnhardt's neck had been snapped fatally in a crash that appeared to be routine.

The race finished at 4:15 p.m. Daytona time. Twenty-five minutes later, reporters were shooed from the garage area. From outside the fence, we saw members of Dale Jr.'s team heading toward a trailer, and you could hear the sobs.

A few minutes after 5, Dave (Foof) Ferroni, a friend and a publicist for NASCAR teams, walked over looking ashen. In a whisper, Foof confirmed the worst: "He's dead."

All the same things Earnhardt had said eight years earlier at Talladega -- about Bonnett, about Stanley Smith -- were said about him in the days and the weeks that followed.

But as it turned out, losing Dale Sr., losing its No. 1 T-shirt salesman, was the blow that NASCAR needed. Unlike Adam Petty and his friend Neil Bonnett and more, Earnhardt did not die in vain.

NASCAR ignored the silly arguments and made the harness device mandatory immediately after Earnhardt's death. NASCAR and the other track owners stopped whining about cost and started installing "soft walls'' on key portions of the big-league circuits.

And there hasn't been a death in Cup racing since Dale Sr. crumpled over in his driver's seat on Feb. 18, 2001. The Intimidator died doing what he loved -- driving like an outlaw -- and a decade later, there's evidence he has saved lives in the process.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com