Comeback try claims Bonnett (2024)

Published Feb. 12, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Neil Bonnett, a veteran stock car driver trying to come back from a career-halting accident in 1990, was killed Friday in a crash during practice at Daytona International Speedway.

Bonnett, 47, died at 1:17 p.m. at Halifax Medical Center from massive head injuries suffered when his stock car hit the wall in Turn 4 at the 2.5-mile speedway where NASCAR Winston Cup teams are preparing for the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb.


Bonnett, from Hueytown, Ala., is the third active NASCAR Winston Cup driver to die in less than a year. The 1992 Winston Cup champion, Alan Kulwicki, died in April in a plane crash en route to a race in Bristol, Tenn. Davey Allison, who nearly edged Kulwicki for the title that year, was killed in a helicopter crash in July at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

For a racing fraternity that was climbing out of mourning over those incidents, Bonnett's death is a sharp plunge back in. Racing fans and officials had hoped the dawn of a new season would put to rest the pain of the season before, when Rusty Wallace, Stanley Smith and Jimmy Horton were involved in death-defying accidents, in addition to the Kulwicki and Allison deaths.

Because of a crash involving an ARCA driver in Turn 4 the day before, Friday was the first full day Bonnett and other Winston Cup drivers had to practice before pole-qualifying today.

About 10 laps into the session, the action was stopped because of reports of oil in Turns 1 and 2, track officials said. Practice resumed minutes later, and after about eight or 10 more laps, Bonnett's crash occurred.

Bonnett, in a well-spaced group of cars, was coming through Turn 4 when he apparently lost control, skidded almost sideways, and slammed into the outside wall nearly head-on, track officials said.

NASCAR spokesman Chip Williams said no oil was reported in that area and three of the four tires on Bonnett's car were still inflated after the crash, indicating that tire failure wasn't the cause.

"The best we can tell, it was driver error," Williams said.

Williams said NASCAR delayed its announcement for several hours because Bonnett's wife, Susan, was en route to Daytona Beach and could not be informed. She was told of her husband's death when she arrived, at 5 p.m.

Bonnett's death was the 24th on the Daytona track since it opened in February 1959, including motorcycles and go-karts.

As a racer, Bonnett was an ornery type, the kind of guy who could have a broken arm and brush it off as "just a little bruise." And during his racing career, he sustained a lot of broken arms _ and legs and collarbones and ribs and breastbones.

For seven straight years during the height of his stock car career, Bonnett was involved in accidents that required hospital stays. Since 1987, he had a metal plate in his right leg as a result of a broken leg sustained in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"I never listened to a doctor in my life," Bonnett once said. "I'd do what they say to do (to recover) and then try to accelerate it."

The crash at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway during the 1990 TranSouth 500, halted Bonnett's career for three years. Head injuries kept him from recognizing his wife, children or parents for several days.

Still, of all his career injuries, the thing that seemed to hurt him the most was not racing.

Even though his family was opposed to the idea, Bonnett began toying with resuming his career, test-driving a race car in 1992 for Dale Earnhardt, a close friend, and later for Davey Allison, a Hueytown neighbor.

"He was so special. He had always been a friend to us," said David Smith, a member of Earnhardt's crew. "After his accident (at Darlington) and he suffered amnesia, we had to rebuild that a little. He loved being around people and people loved to be around him. I'm really going to miss him."

While doctors eventually cleared him to race, Bonnett admitted they preferred that he concentrate on his job as host of the racing TV show Winners on The Nashville Network or his fabrication business and automobile dealerships in Alabama.

Though Bonnett admitted racing again probably wasn't the most sensible thing, he couldn't get the idea out of his head.

"I think once you gear up yourself at the competitive level to where you're racing all your life _ I've raced since I was 18 years old _ it's hard to walk away," Bonnett said in 1992.

It was hard even after his car flipped on its roof and tore down a 20-foot portion of a safety fence in his return to Winston Cup racing at the Diehard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in July. Bonnett continued his comeback attempt four months later, racing in the season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"If I would've been involved in that accident (at Talladega) and said I made a mistake, it might have been a different outcome and I might've been able to make a call back then," Bonnett said in October, after announcing he had signed a two-year deal to compete in six races for car owner James Finch during the 1994 season, starting with the Daytona 500.

Bonnett first came to the track to drive a late-model stock car in 1973. He was in 46 Daytona races in Winston Cup cars, winning three.

He had 18 Winston Cup victories. Bonnett planned to run up to six races this year and again in 1995 while continuing his broadcasting chores.

Neil Bonnett

Born: July 30, 1946, Hueytown, Ala.

Hometown: Bessemer, Ala.

Career milestones: First Winston Cup race _ May 5, 1974, Talladega, Ala. (finished 45th). First Winston Cup pole _ July 16, 1976, Nashville, Tenn. First Winston Cup win _ Sept. 11, 1977, Richmond, Va. First Winston Cup superspeedway win _ Nov. 20, 1977, Ontario, Calif.

Career statistics: 361 Winston Cup races, 20 Winston Cup poles, 18 Winston Cup wins, 83 top-five finishes, 156 top-10 finishes, $3,856,061 career winnings, $492,510 in Daytona winnings (17th on all-time list).

Career highlights: Best Winston Cup season, 1985 (fourth); Comeback Driver of the Year, 1988; Best Daytona 500 finish, 1980 (third); best overall Daytona International Speedway finish, first (1979 Firecracker 400).

Personal: Wife (Susan, married 1963); children (David, born 1964; Kristen, born 1973); host of The Nashville Network television program Winners; racing analyst for CBS and TNN.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Comeback try claims Bonnett (2024)


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