I suppose I should be ashamed to say that, this year, I forgot about Bonnett’s death on Feb. 11, 1994, more than 17 years ago. He died in a crash during practice for the Daytona 500.
We can’t always remember everything or everyone. With the passage of time it’s inevitable that we lose many who have been so much a part of NASCAR that, frankly, we can’t fathom it all – as it has been with me. I’m not alone.
Seems we tend to recall only those who made an indelible mark that imprinted everyone – fans, media and, in some cases, the nation. So it was with Dale Earnhardt, whom we lost 10 years ago. The anniversary of his passing, this past February, prompted many memorials.
If he were alive today Earnhardt would most certainly remember Bonnett – and demand we do as well.
Earnhardt and Bonnett were the best of friends. Their bond was forged not only as fellow racers, but also through an affinity for the outdoors; hunting and fishing.
As a driver Bonnett was not, by some measures, a superstar – but he was successful. He won 18 races from 1977-1998, driving for such teams as J.D. Stacy, Wood Brothers Racing, Junior Johnson and Associates (as a teammate to Darrell Waltrip) and Rahmoc Enterprises, owned by Butch Mock and Bob Rahilly. He is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame.
I believe his most impressive season had to be in ’88. That year, with Rahmoc, he won early at Richmond and Rockingham. During the interval between those two races, he was victorious at the inaugural NASCAR exhibition event at Thunderdome in Melbourne, Australia – three consecutive victories.
To win in 1988 was very emotional for Bonnett, if for no other reason than he suffered a fractured hip at Charlotte on Oct. 11, 1987, when his Pontiac experienced a blown tire and slammed into the wall. He returned to victory lane after many thought his career might well be over.
Just a couple of years later another incident again threatened his career. But, once more, he came back. Sadly, he never should have done so.
But this is not about Bonnett the racer. It’s about Bonnett the man.
He was one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR. As a competitor, he did what drivers were expected to do, earn their stripes on the bullrings, attract attention from the elite circuit and then prove his worth – all of which Bonnett did.
A native of Alabama, he became one of that state’s NASCAR “gang,” which included Red Farmer, Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Bonnett and, later, Bobby’s son Davey.
Bonnett was someone not many drivers have ever been – a unique and appreciated individual. He was personable, candid, witty and, dare I say, charming. He could converse with anyone. He was open and outgoing with fans and the media. He had the type of personality which, if he started racing today, would have instantly made him a huge favorite.
He was his own affable self, always. There was nothing fake. That’s what fans liked. I never read, or heard, a harsh word about him.
Here’s an example of his sense of humor.
He won a race in the ‘70s at Richmond. Back then Richmond was far removed from what it is today. Suffice it to say that writers, what few of us were there, had to go to the office of the director of the Virginia State Fairgrounds to write and file our pieces. That was the only place that had telephones.
Because Richmond was an afternoon race, I was always able to get my stuff back to the Roanoke (Va.) Times in time to make the three-hour journey home and catch the 11 p.m. sports broadcast.
This particular time I tuned in and heard the weekend sports announcer (obviously a guy who didn’t know anything about racing) say the following:
“And today in Richmond, the NASCAR race was won by the famous French race driver, Nyles Bounet.” He pronounced it “Boo-nay.”
When I heard that I laughed so loud I nearly wet my pants – not that I have ever done so, you understand.
I soon called my buddy Tom Higgins and told him what I had seen and heard.
We made it a pact to call Bonnett “Ze famous driver Nyles Bounet” from that moment on. And we did.
Bonnett’s reply was always the same – “Bonjour! What the hell are you guys doin’?” He was always smiling, even laughing, when he said it. He never failed to play along with the gag.
Bonnett’s career was virtually over after a crash in the TransSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 1, 1990. A multicar crash on lap 212 of 367, triggered by Ernie Irvan, 10 laps down at the time, resulted in Bonnett’s transportation to a Florence, S.C., hospital with head injuries and severe amnesia.
Bonnett was out of racing for three years. During that time, among other things, he established himself as a solid TV personality with his own show on The Nashville Network. It was on that broadcast that he absolved Irvan of any blame.
Before all of that, though, I remember his first press conference at Talladega following his recovery. Bonnett said, “I want you guys to know that I’m just fine.”
Then he pointed at Tom and me.
“I’ll prove it to you. There sits Tom and there sits Steve ….”
To this day neither of us has forgotten how he singled out a couple of his media friends above all others.
It was during that same press conference that Bonnett said his funniest and most memorable words.
Bobby Allison had suffered a near-fatal, career-ending crash at Pocono in 1988. Among many other injuries, he, too, sustained a severe loss of memory, from which it took him years to overcome.
As Bonnett recovered from his incident he had the opportunity to chat with his mentor when they, both healing, reunited for the first time.
“You know,” Bonnett said, “between him trying to remember what he was a-saying and me trying to remember what he was a-telling me, we had ourselves a helluva conversation.”
Bonnett ran a couple of races for Richard Childress Racing in 1993, one of which ended in a frightening, violent crash at Talladega, the other with a blown engine at Atlanta.
Everyone, including Earnhardt, suggested he give it all up. There was no need for him to attempt to race again. He had successful businesses and a career in television was virtually guaranteed.
But he ignored that and paid the ultimate sacrifice in Daytona in 1994.
I wonder what Bonnett, today, would mean to NASCAR had he not perished.
He would be nearly 65 years old. Should he have chosen, I believe he would be a strong television presence and, more important, be one of NASCAR’s most respected elder statesmen – and remain immensely popular.
That’s not to be, of course.
But what has to be is that Neil Bonnett should never be forgotten.
I suspect there are many fans, and others, who would heartily agree.