Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Remembering" Neil Bonnett

July 30, 1946 – February 11, 1994
Neil Bonnett
(Photo credit; neilbonnett.com)
Born in Hueytown, Alabama, USA.
Bonnett began his NASCAR career as a protégé of 1983 Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison, working on the team's cars. He later became part of the famous "Alabama Gang" that included himself, Red Farmer and the Allison family, father Bobby, brother Donnie and, later, son Davey. He began driving in NASCAR in 1974 and earned his first victory in 1977 at the Capital City 400 in Richmond, Virginia driving for Harry Hyde/Jim Stacy Racing. He had another victory in 1977 at the Los Angeles Times 500, which would be the last Dodge win in NASCAR until 2001. Many in racing circles thought 1978 would be his year to dominate, but troubles with his cars, the new for 78 Dodge Magnum, and financial problems between Hyde and Stacy caused his cars to fail and to drop out of many races. In 1979 he hooked up with the Wood Brothers Racing Team and got his career back on track with three victories. He later won back-to-back World 600s, NASCAR's longest race, and back-to-back Busch Clash victories in 1983 and '84, including his first in which he did not win a single pole from the previous season, but was selected as a wild card entry.

In 1984, Bonnett joined Junior Johnson's team, becoming a teammate to Darrell Waltrip. In 1985, Bonnett had one of his best seasons, finishing fourth in the points standings while Waltrip went on to win his third championship.

Bonnett participated in International Race of Champions during three seasons, 1979, 1980, and 1984, and finished second twice.

Neil Bonnett holds the distinction of being the winner of the first ever NASCAR race held outside of North America when he won the 1988 Goodyear NASCAR 500 at the $54 million Calder Park Thunderdome in Melbourne, Australia. The race, run two weeks after the Daytona 500, wasn't a Winston Cup race but featured some drivers from the series including fellow Alabama Gang member Bobby Allison, Michael Waltrip, Dave Marcis and Kyle Petty who were up against Australian drivers somewhat new to NASCAR racing. Bonnet, who had won the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway the previous weekend, started from the pole driving his Valvoline sponsored Pontiac Grand Prix. He and Allison, driving a Buick LeSabre, dominated the crash marred, 280 lap 500 km race finishing 1-2 ahead of Dave Marcis on a day when cabin temperatures were reported to reach over 57° Celsius (135° Fahrenheit) as the race was held during Australia's notoriously hot summer.

On April 1, 1990, Neil Bonnett suffered a life-threatening crash during the TranSouth 500 at Darlington, South Carolina when his car hit the water barrels in front of pit road drivers-side first. Left with amnesia and dizziness, Bonnett retired from racing and turned to television, becoming a race color commentator for TNN, CBS Sports, and TBS Sports, and hosting the TV show Winners for TNN.

However, Bonnett still desired to continue racing. In 1992, he began testing cars for good friends Dale Earnhardt and car owner Richard Childress. Cleared to race again in 1993 and upon Earnhardt's suggestion, Childress gave Bonnett a ride for the 1993 DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway which was numbered 31 and sponsored by GM Goodwrench. But Bonnett's comeback race was marred by a crash in which his car spun, became airborne, and crashed into the spectator fence. Bonnett was uninjured and called the rest of the race from the CBS broadcast booth after being cleared at the infield care center. He would also start the final race of the 1993 season in Atlanta, but he dropped out after just three laps. The reason the team gave for removing the car from the race was a blown engine; however, Bonnett was teamed with points leader Dale Earnhardt, and the car was retired to assist Earnhardt in winning the season's championship. Earnhardt needed to maximize his finishing position, and by Bonnett quitting the race he was assured of those three championship points. That would be Bonnett's final cup start of his career.

Despite the setbacks, Bonnett was encouraged because he had secured a ride and sponsorship for at least six races in the 1994 season with car owner James Finch, including the season opening Daytona 500, for Phoenix Racing. But on February 11, 1994, Bonnett lost his life during the first practice session for the 1994 Daytona 500. According to witnesses, Bonnett lost control of his Chevrolet on the track's high-banked fourth turn, swerving onto the track apron and then up the steep bank before crashing into the wall nearly head on.

(Photo credit; www.findagrave.com)
Bonnett is buried in Pleasant Grove's cemetery, Forest Grove Memorial Gardens. A road called "Allison-Bonnett Memorial Drive" in his hometown honors him, along with fellow native Davey Allison, who died seven months earlier.

When Brad Keselowski scored Phoenix Racing's first Sprint Cup win 15 years later in the 2009 Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, Finch dedicated the win to Bonnett. During the 2013 season, Finch designed the No. 51 car's paint scheme in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the No. 1 car in the NASCAR Nationwide Series like Bonnett's 1994 Country Time Chevrolet that he drove shortly before his death.

Bonnett appeared in the 1983 film Stroker Ace and the 1990 film Days of Thunder. He was portrayed by the actor Sean Bridgers in the TV Movie 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story.

2 comments:

  1. This article left out the fact that Bonnett was injured in the World 600 in 1987 where he had a permanent steel rod in one leg and a hip replacement. Following that, he returned to racing and wrecked again, breaking his breastbone. Thus, he earned the name racings "Bionic Man"

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  2. Actually Neil's injury at the 1990 Darlington race wasn't life threatening but was a severe case of amnesia thought to have been brought on by the concussion he suffered when he crashed into the passenger side of Sterling Marlin's nearly stationary car in the big wreck in that race. Neil had suffered several concussions in his racing career and it is believed that the amnesia was a result of the cumulative effect of these concussions.

    It was a sad day in 1994 when Neil lost his life. For me that was when NASCAR died.

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