The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past: Neil Bonnett by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday March 8, 2007

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Driven To The Past: Neil Bonnett

Vito Pugliese · Thursday March 8, 2007

 

Hometown: Hueytown, AL

Career:
Starts: 632
Wins: 18
Top 5: 83
Top 10: 156
Poles: 20
Earnings: $3,988,466

Neil Bonnett was born June 30th, 1944 in Bessemer, Alabama. His foray into NASCAR began while working as a mechanic for fellow Alabama native Bobby Allison. He began his career in his home state, driving in the 1974 Winston 500 at Talladega (then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway). His race was a short one, as a failed oil line 51 laps in relegated him to a 45th place finish in a field of 50 cars. There are probably more than a few teams that wished there were 50 car fields at California and Daytona this year. With this start, Neil gained membership in the Alabama Gang, a group of drivers who included brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison, Red Farmer (and his index finger), and Bobby's sons, Davey and Clifford Allison.

Neil would earn his first win in 1977 at the Richmond Fairgrounds, in the Capital City 400 driving a Dodge Charger for JD Stacy. He beat the best that day, besting 2nd place finisher Richard Petty by over 7 seconds, and leading 250 laps. He would post a 2nd win in November at the season ending Los Angles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway in California, again outlasting the King by two car lengths

After holding off Richard Petty for his first two wins, it was ironic that he was the driver chosen to replace David Pearson following his departure (there has been a long-standing disagreement as to whether David quit or was fired) from the Wood Brothers. Neil took over the reigns of the No. 21 Purolator Mercury nine races into the 1979 season. Neil would post three wins in 1979 driving for the Woods, winning at Dover, Daytona, and Atlanta. Neil would also post back to back wins in the World 600 (now the Coca~Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway) in 1981 and 1982, with '82 being his last year with the Wood Brothers.

In 1984, he would join forces with the legendary Junior Johnson and 2-time Champion Darrell Waltrip. His Alabama Gang counterpart Bobby Allison won the championship the year before, and Neil was looking to contend for his own championship as partner to Waltrip driving the No. 12 Budweiser Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. The duo worked well together early on. Waltrip finished 5th in points in 1984, Neil 8th. In 1985 he would post two wins and finish a career best 4th in points. However, things began to sour in Ingle Hollow, and Bonnett would return to the team he raced with before joining Junior Johnson, RahMoc Enterprises and the No. 75 Valvoline Pontiac. He would win his final race in March of 1988, at Rockingham, NC.

In 1989 he would return to another former team and the one that helped establish him as a top tier driver in NASCAR's premier division when he came back to drive the Wood Brother's No. 21 car. It was no longer the boxy land barge Mercury, but the redesigned, swoopy new Ford Thunderbird sponsored by Citgo. The reunion was short lived as during the TransSouth 500 in 1990, Neil was involved in a crash with Ernie Irvan, and sustained a closed head injury. It would effectively sideline him unitl 1993.

During that time Neil pursued his passions of hunting and fishing. Neil also displayed his talents in the broadcast booth as a commentator for CBS and Turner Broadcasting, giving a driver's perspective of the race. This was unique as he was a driver from the modern era who had driven the cars on the track only months earlier. He also hosted one of the first programs dedicated to profiling great names in NASCAR, with the series "Winners" on TNN. Unlike some of his contemporaries who rushed their returns to racing and now have since faded, Bonnet took some much needed time to heal and returned to action in the 1993 (aptly named) Die Hard 500 at Talladega, the site of his very first NASCAR start. Neil was driving the black No. 31 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, a car that looked conspicuously similar to his buddy Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 GM Goodwrench Lumina. Neil combined roles as driver and in-race commentator. Everything was progressing nicely, with Neil repeatedly giving thumbs up and "okay" gestures to the in-car camera until lap 131 when he was involved in a crash. In the days before roof flaps, Neil's car ended up upside-down, slapping the wall and fence not far from where fellow Alabama Gang member Bobby Allison nearly introduced his Miller Buick to the crowd in grand fashion a few years earlier. Neil would make another start for RCR in the season finale at Atlanta, as his long time friend and hunting partner Dale Earnhardt claimed his 6th Winston Cup Championship.

As soon as it appeared that Neil was staging a comeback at 44 years old, tragedy struck. During a practice session for the 1994 Daytona 500, Neil was killed when his car hit the wall in turn 4, not far from where Dale Earnhardt would meet a similar fate in 2001. Neil's son, David, would have a brief career in NASCAR with 19 Busch Series starts, but no victories. It is a sad note that so many members of the Alabama Gang perished during the early 1990s. At a time when NASCAR was experiencing it's largest surge of growth, a group of people that contributed so much of their lives to it would never get a chance to reap what they had sown. Bobby Allison was nearly killed in 1988 at a crash in Pocono, PA, only to lose sons Clifford Allison in 1992, Davey Allison in 1993, and then his friend Neil Bonnett in 1994.

In 1997, Neil was inducted to the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame. In 1998 as part of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary, Neil Bonnett was named as one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers of all time. Finally in 2001, Neil was elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in his home state of Alabama, just outside of the track where he made his very first start in 1974.

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©2000 - 2008 Vito Pugliese and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

amgiaus
03/09/2007 09:59 PM
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Thanks for the memories. I actually got to see Neil race for the Wood Brothers. I am going to watch Jon Wood driving it with interest.

falcon325
03/10/2007 10:20 AM
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Neil was a 30-year-old rookie. How things have changed!

Thanks Vito. Good one.

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