A NASCAR driver who compiled 18 victories and 20 poles over his 18-year career. The Alabama native currently ranks 35th in all-time NASCAR Cup victories. He appeared in the 1983 film Stroker Ace and the 1990 film Days of Thunder. He was a color commentator in the years up until his death.
Neil Bonnett holds the distinction of being the winner of the first ever NASCAR race held outside of North America when he won the 1988 Goodyear NASCAR 500 at the A$54 million Calder Park Thunderdome in Melbourne, Australia (at the time the newly opened Thunderdome was also the first NASCAR style speedway to be built outside of North America). The race, run two weeks after the Daytona 500, wasn’t a Winston Cup race but featured some drivers from the series including fellow Alabama Gang member Bobby Allison, Michael Waltrip, Dave Marcis and Kyle Petty who were up against Australian drivers somewhat new to NASCAR racing. Bonnet, who had won the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway the previous weekend, started from the pole driving his Valvoline sponsored Pontiac Grand Prix. He and Allison (who had won the Daytona 500 two weeks previous), driving a Buick LeSabre, dominated the crash marred, 280 lap 500 km (310 mile) race finishing 1-2 ahead of Dave Marcis on a day when cabin temperatures were reported to reach over 57° Celsius (135° Fahrenheit) as the race was held during Australia’s notoriously hot summer.
On April 1, 1990, Neil Bonnett suffered a life-threatening crash during the TranSouth 500 at Darlington, South Carolina when his car hit the water barrels in front of pit road drivers-side first. Left with amnesia and dizziness, Bonnett retired from racing and turned to television, becoming a race color commentator for TNN, CBS Sports, and TBS Sports, and hosting the TV show Winners for TNN.
However, Bonnett still desired to continue racing. In 1992, he began testing cars for good friends Dale Earnhardt and car owner Richard Childress. Cleared to race again in 1993 and upon Earnhardt’s suggestion, Childress gave Bonnett a ride for the 1993 DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway which was numbered 31 and sponsored by GM Goodwrench. But Bonnett’s comeback race was marred by a crash in which his car spun, became airborne, and crashed into the spectator fence. Bonnett was uninjured and called the rest of the race from the CBS broadcast booth after being cleared at the infield care center. He would also start the final race of the 1993 season in Atlanta, but he dropped out after just three laps. The reason the team gave for removing the car from the race was a blown engine; however, Bonnett was teamed with points leader Dale Earnhardt, and the car was retired to assist Earnhardt in winning the season’s championship. Earnhardt needed to maximize his finishing position, and by Bonnett quitting the race he was assured of those three championship points. That would be Bonnett’s final cup start of his career.
Despite the setbacks, Bonnett was encouraged because he had secured a ride and sponsorship for at least six races in the 1994 season with car owner James Finch, including the season opening Daytona 500, for Phoenix Racing. But on February 11, 1994, during the first practice session for the 1994 Daytona 500, according to witnesses, Bonnett lost control of his Chevrolet on the track’s high-banked fourth turn, swerving onto the track apron and then up the steep bank before crashing into the wall nearly head on.
Bonnett is buried in Pleasant Grove‘s cemetery, Forest Grove Memorial Gardens. A road called “Allison-Bonnett Memorial Drive” in his hometown honors him, along with fellow native Davey Allison, who died seven months earlier.
Seven years later Bonnett’s colleague Dale Earnhardt died in a racing accident during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. About three weeks after the accident, magazine photographers released photographs of Bonnett’s and another killed driver Rodney Orr‘s autopsies to the public, which led to a lawsuit.
When Brad Keselowski scored Phoenix Racing’s first Sprint Cup win 15 years later in the 2009 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, Finch dedicated the win to Bonnett. During the 2013 season, Finch designed the No. 51 car’s paint scheme in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and the No. 1 car in the NASCAR Nationwide Series like Bonnett’s 1994 Country Time Chevrolet that he drove shortly before his death.
- July, 30, 1946
- Hueytown, Alabama
- February, 11, 1994
- Daytona Beach, Florida
Cause of Death
- Race car crash during practice for the 1994 Daytona 500
- Forest Grove Memorial Gardens
- Pleasant Grove, Alabama