February 11, 1994 - The Day Neil Bonnett Died - RacingNation.com (2024)

CHARLOTTE, NC (February 14, 2014) – This was the stuff dreams were made of.

After being involved in racing all my life, I never imagined I would be standing on top of a race hauler in the middle of the NASCAR garage area at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, February 14,1994.

Just four days earlier, I had reported to Cotter Communications in Charlotte, NC after they had hired me to become the Public Relations Representative for driver Bobby Labonte and the No. 22 Maxwell House Pontiac Winston Cup team.

The job was my first-ever team PR assignment at any level of racing and looking back, I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground.

You could forgive me if I was more than a little overwhelmed. I was fresh fish, a NASCAR rookie after earning my way here by working short tracks all over the Midwest for nearly 10 years in an effort to get this chance.

Whatever my experience level, no one could have been prepared for what this day – my fifth on my new job and my first at the racetrack – would later bring.

Before the first practice for the 1994 Daytona 500 rolled off, I walked from the garage area out to pit road to get the lay of the land. It was amazing.

As I sat on the pit wall, I could smell the fresh cut, immaculately manicured grass in the tri-oval area and I wondered aloud what they would think of all this back in snowbound Wisconsin, my home state. The size of the track and huge, empty grandstands were overwhelming. Everything about Daytona is impressive, especially the first time you go there.

I’d covered the Indianapolis 500 as a newspaper reporter, but this was something else.

This was Daytona, NASCAR’s hallowed ground.

I had made it. This was the ‘big time.’

With practice about to start, I began the long walk back to the garage area. On the way, I waved to Neil Bonnett as he rolled by heading for pit road. You couldn’t miss Neil’s neon pink and yellow No. 51 Country Time Chevy – or his smile – as he as he idled by.

Neil was one of a kind, not just in NASCAR, but in all of racing. He was also one of the few people I knew in the garage area that day.

A year earlier, I had the pleasure of working with Neil when he agreed to be the Honorary Chairperson for the Wisconsin Motorsports Charities Recognition Dinner. The banquet, which raised money for disabled adults, selected Neil as the 1993 Chairperson because of his long battle back from a debilitating head injury he’d received in a racing accident at Darlington (SC) Raceway in 1990.

Neil flew to Milwaukee for the event and as a board member and public relations specialist for the charity, I was assigned to take care of him. Despite the fact we were only together a little more than a day, I felt like we were best friends when he left.

Then again, Neil had that kind of effect on a lot of people.

The day prior to my inaugural 1994 Daytona gig, Neil’s PR rep and my new Cotter Communications co-worker, Jon Sands, was called to Phoenix to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. Since Maxwell House Coffee and Neil’s sponsor – Country Time Lemonade – were Kraft General Foods sister companies, two other new Cotter associates, John Singler and Keith Waltz, and I were to “look out” for Neil’s No. 51 car while Sands was away.

I was told that meant simple, procedural things like distributing the press kits and funneling any interview requests to Neil. If anything else were needed, Singler, the senior member of the on-site staff, would handle it.

The extra duty was only going to be for a day or so because Sands was expected to be in Daytona by the end of the weekend. Besides, it was just practice, nothing was going to happen.


Except the worst.

Within minutes of start of the first practice session, a panic rushed through the garage area. Neil had crashed hard in Turn 3 and the buzz was it was serious. Waltz came to me and said I needed to get over to Halifax Medical Center as quickly as possible. Neil was being transported directly to the hospital and Singler was already on his way. Waltz indicated he would stay behind to take care of business at the racetrack.

I quickly headed toward the hospital just a few blocks up International Speedway Boulevard. Once inside the hospital’s Emergency Room, I went to a private waiting area where Singler came out and told me the gravity of the situation.

His voice cracked as he gave me the news – the doctors were working on Neil, but it was bad, real bad. I was told to not say anything and let the doctors and NASCAR make any statements. Just mingle in the crowd Singler said, try to keep everyone calm.

It didn’t take long for the press and a dozens of NASCAR race team personnel to flood the waiting room at the hospital. Neil had a lot of friends and they all wanted to be there. Everyone wanted to know what was going on back in the emergency care area.

I did what I was told and said as little as possible. I remember looking around the room and thinking here were all the people I was used to seeing on television every Sunday. Normally, I would have been a little star-struck at the gathering of famous racers, but given the surreal events of moment, there was no joy in seeing their faces.

Finally, at 1:17 p.m., the announcement that Neil Bonnett had passed was officially made.

People sobbed as the statement was read. I cried as well. Neil was my friend too. Maybe not like those in the room who knew him for years, but a friend just the same.

Now, in what I would come to know as racing’s dark side all too many times over the next 20 years, Neil Bonnett was dead.

He was only 47.

When the garage opened that fateful morning, I stopped by to greet Neil’s race hauler to tell him Singler, Waltz and I would be handling things in Sands’ absence. Neil was cool with the arrangement and seemed more eager to discuss my new good fortune of landing a NASCAR Winston Cup PR job.

One of the last things I remember Neil saying to me was “Welcome to NASCAR, John” as he patted me on the back and headed into the trailer to get ready for the upcoming practice.

Looking back, I was probably one of the last people to talk to Neil – and surely was one of he last to see him alive as he motored by me heading out on the track that morning.

I’ve never quite been able to shake that and it’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since that fateful day. Talk about a lousy first day at the track experiencing your ‘dream job.’

Welcome to NASCAR indeed, John.

February 11, 1994 - The Day Neil Bonnett Died - RacingNation.com (1)

John Close

John Close covered his first NASCAR race in 1986 at Bristol. Since then, Close – a former Associated Press newspaper sports editor – has written countless articles for numerous motorsports magazines, trade publications and Internet sites.

His Close Calls column appears each week on www.CloseFinishes.com, www.MotorsportsAmerica.com and www.RacingNation.com.

Close has also authored two books – Tony Stewart – From Indy Phenom To NASCAR Superstar and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – From Desert Dust To Superspeedways.

Close is a weekly guest every Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern on Tradin’ Paint on NASCAR SIRIUS Channel 90.

You can follow John Close on Twitter @CloseFinishes and on Facebook at John Close.

Be sure to visit John’s website – www.closefinishes.com


Daytona 500Featuredneil Bonnett

← Previous Story NASCAR Media Day Kicks Off Speedweeks 2014

Next Story → Daytona Beach Welcomes Vintage Racers

February 11, 1994 - The Day Neil Bonnett Died - RacingNation.com (2024)


What was the cause of Neil Bonnett's death? ›

But on February 11, 1994, during the first practice session for the 1994 Daytona 500, a shock mount broke, causing him to lose control of his Chevrolet on the track's high-banked fourth turn. The car swerved onto the track apron, and then up the steep bank, before crashing into the wall nearly head on.

Where is Neil Bonnett buried? ›

What Nascar driver died at New Hampshire Speedway? ›

Kenneth Dale Irwin Jr.

He died as a result of injuries suffered in a crash during a practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kenny Irwin Jr. Kenneth Dale Irwin Jr. Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.

How many races did Neil Bonnett win? ›

Bonnett excelled in everything he did. In addition to being a NASCAR Winston Cup star with 18 wins, he was an accomplished television broadcaster, as well as a top-notch hunter and fisherman.

Did Neil Bonnett win the Daytona 500? ›

A member of NASCAR's famed Alabama Gang

He claimed many high-profile victories, including back-to-back Coca-Cola 600s (1982-83), and wins at Daytona and Talladega for the Wood Brothers. In between racing duties, Bonnett was a popular choice to represent the sport in primetime.

Is Alan Kulwicki still alive? ›

Is Adam Petty still alive? ›

Who was the NASCAR legend that died? ›

This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make, but after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt.

Where is Bobby Helms buried at? ›

Bobby Helms is buried in Hillside Cemetery in Martinsville. On his headstone it reads: “Here lies a legend–Mr. Jingle Bell Rock.”

Where is actor Gary Cooper buried? ›

In May 1974, after his family relocated to New York, Cooper's remains were exhumed and reburied in Sacred Hearts Cemetery in Southampton, New York. Hollywood film star known as Gary Cooper was once buried in 1961, in the 'Grotto' Section of Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Where is Dale Sr buried at? ›

Where is Noel Gordon buried? ›

It became known in 1982 that Gordon was suffering from cancer, for which she underwent two major operations. She retired to her home in Birmingham, where she died in 1985 of stomach cancer, at the age of 65. She was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's parish church in Ross-on-Wye, next to her mother.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Greg O'Connell

Last Updated:

Views: 5614

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (42 voted)

Reviews: 89% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Greg O'Connell

Birthday: 1992-01-10

Address: Suite 517 2436 Jefferey Pass, Shanitaside, UT 27519

Phone: +2614651609714

Job: Education Developer

Hobby: Cooking, Gambling, Pottery, Shooting, Baseball, Singing, Snowboarding

Introduction: My name is Greg O'Connell, I am a delightful, colorful, talented, kind, lively, modern, tender person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.