Neil Bonnett: Racer, Broadcaster, Legend, And Man
No, gentle readers, this piece is not brand new and neither am I, but Thursday is still February 11, Neil is still dead and I still miss him. If you’ve read it before, please read it again. I promise, you’ll like it, though it might cause a tear or two to fall.
This Thursday, February 11, marks the 22th anniversary of the death of racecar driver and broadcaster Neil Bonnett at Daytona International Speedway in 1994. For an old-timer like me, it is quite startling to realize that some of you reading this today have no memory whatsoever of this wonderful man unless your parents have told you about him. If you'll keep reading, I hope to rectify that.
Here at Race Fans Forever, several of us have been asked by our readers to write on occasion about the history of stock car racing and share it with the next generation(s) of race fans. Neil Bonnett fits squarely into the middle of that history; not a pioneer, but taken from us near the height of the sport's popularity... gone far too soon. The article you are about to read is written with a more personal tone than many of my offerings and that is because Neil Bonnett was one of my all-time favorite people. Much of what you’ll read today has been taken from my own memories, so walk along beside me down Memory Lane and I'll tell you a bit about the great racer and the wonderful man that was Neil Bonnett.
Born and raised in Hueytown, Alabama, Neil married his wife Susan and the couple made their home in nearby Bessemer, with their two children, David and Kristen. He was a member of the famous, or some would say, "Infamous" Alabama Gang, along with Bobby and Donnie Allison, Bobby’s son Davey and Red Farmer.
Donnie Allison, Red Farmer, Neil Bonnett, Bobby Allison
*Note: This is the only picture I could find that included both Red Farmer and Neil Bonnett. Does anyone know something I don’t know?
Neil Bonnett was a gentleman, or a gentle man; either way works perfectly, unless you're talking about behind the wheel of a racecar. There, Neil was a tiger, determined to beat the best at any cost. The first time Neil really caught my eye was driving the #75 to victory for Rahmoc-Warner Hodgdon in the World 600 at Charlotte, although he'd already been on the Winston Cup circuit for several years by then. In 1984, he earned a bid from the then almost invincible Junior Johnson team, as a stable mate to Darrell Waltrip. Neil stayed there for three years, somewhat to the dismay of Ol' DW, who never wanted a teammate in the first place. Eventually, both drivers left the Johnson team in the same year, 1987, with Darrell going to Rick Hendrick and Neil returning to Rahmoc.
In early 1988, Neil took the last two victories of his career in successive races at Rockingham and Richmond, driving for the Bob Rahilly-Butch Mock team. Those wins still stand today as the last wins for the #75 car, regardless of owner, but as things in racing go, he moved on from there to the famous #21 of the Wood Brothers in 1990.
It wasn't long into that year when things took a turn for the worse for Neil. At the Transouth 500 in Darlington that spring, while he was riding in the middle of the pack, there was action going on at the front. At a restart after a caution, Ken Schrader was on the point, and underneath him, 14 laps down, was Ernie Irvan. The green flag waved and you might have thought it was the white, the way they went after each other. It's not for me to say whether Kenny didn't realize how many laps down Ernie was, or Ernie just pushed too hard, but lap after lap they remained side by side, proving nothing, until the inevitable happened and one got into the other, causing a horrific wreck behind the lead cars. Somewhere in the middle of the mayhem was the #21 and when all the spinning and crashing had ended, it was damaged on every side but the top, and the driver was not moving.
Neil sustained a concussion in that wreck, so severe that he lost all memory. When he was finally released from the hospital, he returned home to a family he did not recognize, referring to wife Susan as "that woman,” and having to be introduced to his own children. It was a hellish few months for the family as gradually bits and pieces of his life returned to memory and the racing world watched and worried.
With all the doctors agreeing on the fact that racing was out of the question, this man who loved it so, stayed close to his sport by becoming a race commentator for CBS and TNN, and fans immediately took to his down-home descriptions of all things racing. "Tight is when you see the wall before you hit it. Loose is when you don't get to see the wreck." As biased as some race fans can be, I don't think there was a single one who didn't love Neil Bonnett. He just had that friendly, neighborly way about him, on the TV screen and in real life.
So popular was he that TNN gave him his own show called "Winners", where a dressed down Neil interviewed racing personalities from every venue of the sport, from his own living room. The fans were happy, and we all hoped that Neil was too, but that love of racing was still in his heart and he longed to go back to it. In 1993, he finally got medical clearance to get behind the wheel again, and spent time testing for Richard Childress racing, on the recommendation of his best friend and fishing partner, Dale Earnhardt, who raced for Childress.
Neil Bonnett - #31 - 1993 Talladega
By Talladega that July, the pair convinced Richard to field a second car for Neil, and for the only time I can remember, there were two black Goodwrench Chevrolets in the race. The experiment didn't turn out as well as expected however, and Neil's car, with a bit of help, wound up flying into the catch fence in a frightening imitation of Bobby Allison's crash in 1987. (The one that started the whole restrictor plate thing) He did start a Western Steer sponsored car for RCR in the finale at Atlanta that year, but blew an engine 3 laps into the race.
Not in the least discouraged, Neil found a sponsor in Country Time Lemonade for a limited run in 1994, and prepared to go racing in James Finch’s #51. On February 11 of 1994, word came from the speedway that Neil had been injured in a practice crash, but once Susan, who had been en route from Alabama, arrived at the track, first she, and then the racing world received the news that Neil had died in the wreck. Ironically, it happened in the same fourth turn that seven years and one week later would claim the life of his best friend.
I guess no one will ever know what role, if any, the controversial Hoosier tires he was running on the car played in the wreck, but in the end, maybe it really doesn't matter. The tires are gone, but so is Neil. Gone, but definitely not forgotten, this gentle man who won the hearts of so many.
[Note* A second driver, young Rodney Orr, the 1993 Goodys Dash Series Champion was also killed in a practice crash at Daytona that year, driving on those same Hoosier Tires. Their deaths brought to 27 the number of racers killed at the giant track of Big Bill's dreams. On February 18, 2001, Daytona would claim its 28th and to date final victim, 7-time Champion Dale Earnhardt... and at last... someone listened.]
Twice in the season before, Neil had used his “Winners” program to eulogize a fellow racer, those drivers of course being Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, tragically taken from us in 1993. The week after Neil’s death, TNN ran a final episode of "Winners", dedicated solely to Neil and his great impact on the sport of auto racing. This fan still tears up at the very thought of it, and watching it would be almost as difficult as watching a replay of the Daytona 500 in 2001, something I've never done.
Over his career, Neil accumulated 18 wins, 20 poles, and 156 top-10 finishes in 363 starts. Over his lifespan, so tragically shortened, he won the respect of family, friends, and millions of race fans who loved to see him race and loved to watch his familiar antics on the TV screen. So moved was his best friend Dale, that a full two years later, when asked by some witless reporter if he still missed his Buddy, he replied, "Hell yes! I still can't even go fishing in my own pond."
I hope that I have managed to impart to you at least some of my feelings about Neil here, and that those of you who never met him might feel that you know him a bit better for having taken this trip down Memory Lane. As I said in the beginning, he was a gentle man. May he rest with the Lord, and may he never be forgotten on earth.
There are so many songs and tributes to fallen drivers or drivers in Heaven that it’s almost impossible to choose among them. I’ve spent a morning replaying many of them once again, and what I came up with was the very first one I reached for. I guess I should have trusted my instincts. This song comes from an album I’m proud to own. The album is “Racing’s Country Roots” (Songs of the Alabama Gang.) The artist on this song is T. Jae Christian, and the song is simply called, “Reminiscing.” You’ll see why I chose to play it today.
In case I failed to fully describe to you what a special sort of person Neil Bonnett was, here is the Winners program done in his honor, the week after he left us. In this, you will see and hear what his friends thought of this dear man.
In answer to the question I know will inevitably follow this article… yes… next week in this space you’ll find my personal tribute to the late, great Dale Earnhardt, now racing on Heaven’s Raceway for 15 long years, come next Thursday.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!