Neil Bonnett (1946-1994) was a popular racecar driver from Birmingham, Jefferson County, who won 18 National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) events in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a later member of the Alabama Gang, a group of successful stockcar racers centered in the Hueytown, Jefferson County, area who first gained national attention in the 1960s. Bonnett was killed in a practice-session accident at Daytona International Speedway in 1994.
Bonnett was born on July 30, 1946, in Ensley, the only child of Lawrence and Josephine Bonnett. While he was a student at Ensley High School, Bonnett often attended the weekly races at nearby Birmingham International Raceway (BIR), where he watched original Alabama Gang members Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, and Red Farmer compete. Bonnett eventually began working as a crew member on Bobby Allison's race team before starting his own career as a driver. He first competed in the Sportsman Car series at BIR and other short-track raceways (tracks less than one mile long) throughout the Southeast. He was the track champion at BIR in 1972, winning approximately 80 percent of his starts that year, and again in 1973.
Bonnett made his debut in NASCAR's premier division, the Winston Cup Series (now known as the Sprint Cup Series), on May 5, 1974, in the Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega County. Bonnett started 33rd in the 50-car field and managed to complete only 51 of the 188 laps before leaving the track with engine problems. He finished 45th. A year later, he finished fifth in the prestigious Daytona 500. On September 11, 1977, Bonnett had his first victory on the Winston Cup circuit, winning the Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway, followed by another victory two months later in the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway.
During the five-year span from 1979 to 1983, Bonnett won 11 Winston Cup races, including victories at Daytona International Speedway in 1979 and his home-state track at Talladega in 1980. Bonnett also won two of the most respected races in NASCAR: the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 1981 and the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in both 1982 and 1983. Bonnett's most successful season in terms of the Winston Cup point standings (the much-coveted overall "championship" for the NASCAR season) was 1985, when he won twice and finished in the Top-10 18 times in 28 races, placing him fourth in the season-ending standings.
During the 1990 TransSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway, Bonnett was in a 14-car crash. His car hit the wall driver's-side first, resulting in a head injury that caused him dizziness and temporary amnesia. Even after he recovered, Bonnett was unable to recall anything about the day of the accident. Because of the injury, Bonnett retired from racing and became a television commentator for The Nashville Network (TNN), CBS sports, and Turner Broadcasting System (TBS). In addition to working on race broadcasts, he was host of the TV show Winners on TNN, which profiled various racing celebrities. Bonnett received positive reviews on his television work for his easygoing, friendly manner.
As he recovered from his injuries, Bonnett began to consider a return to the race track. In 1992 he began driving cars during test sessions for his close friend and fellow driver Dale Earnhardt. Then in 1993, Earnhardt's car owner—Richard Childress—provided Bonnett with a car to race in the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Bonnett's comeback ended early when he was caught up in a crash in which his car went airborne and made contact with the spectator fence separating the track from the grandstands. Not only was Bonnett uninjured, but he also went to the CBS television booth afterward to provide commentary for the rest of the race. Bonnett raced one more time in 1993, completing only three laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway before pulling out for engine trouble.
Bonnett planned to race as much as possible in the 1994 Winston Cup season, and he secured a sponsorship deal to compete in at least the first six races of the season. However, on February 11, 1994, during his first practice session at the season-opening Daytona 500, Bonnett lost control of his car and hit the outside wall in turn four of the track nearly head-on. He died on impact from massive head injuries. Bonnett was survived by his wife, Susan, and two children, David and Kristen.
In 1998, Bonnett was named one of the 50 greatest drivers of the first 50 years of NASCAR. Since his death, he has been inducted
into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (1997), the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame (1997), and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2001).
Bolton, Clyde. The Alabama Gang. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham News, 1994.
Published September 3, 2009
Last updated May 31, 2013