On Friday, February 11, 2011, we celebrate the life and mourn the death, seventeen years ago, of one of stock car racing’s most beloved figures, driver and broadcaster, Neil Bonnett. It’s hard for this race fan to believe that it’s been that many years since I’ve seen that warm smile or heard that gentle voice giving us his unique interpretation of a Winston Cup race. I still miss him.
Welcome gentle readers, to another trip down Memory Lane. Those of you familiar with this work in progress will realize that today’s column imparts a more personal tone than usual and that is because Neil Bonnett was one of my all-time favorite people. Much of what you’ll read today was taken from my own memories, so walk along beside me as I 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.
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. 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. He remains the only driver ever to win a race in that #75 car, 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.
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)
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 his own #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 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.
Twice in the season just past, 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.