Sometimes it’s a dream from a sweet night’s sleep that brings back the nostalgia of another time, another place or a friend long gone, one who has been relegated to occasional, not daily, remembrances.
It happened the other night when I dreamed about Neil Bonnett. Vividly I saw him laughing as he hoisted a trophy. Unless you’re a longtime racing fan, you probably don’t know the name. Chances are good that you never heard it. But trust me – Neil Bonnett was one of the most pleasant, nicest people I ever knew.
And in the rough and tumble world of racing, nice guys don’t always finish last. They’re simply forgotten first.
But Bonnett is the link to many key moments in racing history though he only won 18 races. He was so gentle mannered that, on the rare moments of anger, you didn’t take it seriously. His smile was easy and his wit quick.
Once, while driving for Junior Johnson, he suffered a severe concussion that forced him out of the number 12 Budweiser car for several races. Now, this was back in the days when no one thought twice of a head concussion. Football players, stuntmen and racers simply shook it off and carried on. That is to say that Neil being sidelined was highly unusual. Several races after the accident, he showed up at Darlington as a spectator, and I ran into him in the garage.
I stopped in his path and asked teasingly, “Do you remember me?” It was said that his memory had disappeared.
Quickly he responded, “Heck yeah. I remember the good lookin’ women. It’s all the other stuff I forgot.”
That’s not true because he remembered his friends and maintained his loyalty. The first race after his accident was Talladega, so he asked Junior if he would give a break to a friend’s son. Bobby Allison, his brother, Donnie, Red Farmer and Bonnett formed what was called the Alabama Gang, all drivers from the Birmingham area who were brother-like. Bobby’s son, Davey, had made a name on the ARCA circuit.
“Would you put Davey in the car while I’m out?” Bonnett asked.
Junior agreed, resulting in a media event that was so enormous that Davey was engulfed constantly by a dozen reporters. He couldn’t walk for tripping over a camera. He landed a full-time ride the next year and his first qualifying effort resulted in the Daytona 500 pole.
Six years later, Neil was the first one to the helicopter crash at Talladega when Davey and Red flew over to watch Neil’s test session. Davey died and Red, though injured, lived.
One of my favorite stories involved Neil and his teammate, Darrell Waltrip, when they both drove for Junior. It was a Saturday night race at Nashville Raceway where it was hard to beat Darrell in Nashville because he had become a short track legend there before moving up.
Darrell was leading on the final lap when a fiery crash occurred, bringing out the checkered. Neil, running second, passed Darrell. It was a rule infraction: no passing after the yellow comes out. In all the commotion, NASCAR officials didn’t notice and gave the win to Neil. Junior protested his own driver and told them that Darrell was the winner.
No one listened.
Neil took off fishing the next day, only to return to the cold news that he had been stripped of the win when a Nashville news station produced film showing he had passed Darrell under yellow.
Typically, he was good natured about it all.
He was only 47 when he was killed in a practice accident for the Daytona 500 in 1994. He was driving a car owned by his hunting buddy, Dale Earnhardt.
He shouldn’t be remembered for that, though. He should be remembered as one of the nicest guys the sport every knew.