Lawrence Neil Bonnett, later known as Neil Bonnett, later part of the famous “Alabama Gang”, was born on the 30th July 1947 in Hueytown, Alabama. During his eighteen year career he ran in 362 races with eighteen wins, 156 top tens and poles. His first race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was in 1974 in the Winston Cup Series, Nashville 420 at Nashville and gained his first victory in 1977 at the Capital City 400 in Richmond, Virginia whilst driving for the Harry Hyde/Jim Stacy Racing team, taking another victory in the same year at the Los Angeles Times 500. Onlookers expected the following year to be Neil’s year but due to equipment and financial troubles for the team many of the cars that he raced experienced problems and had to pull out. 1979 saw him driving for the Woods Brothers Racing team, taking three victories. He won NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 in 1982 and 1983 and also the Busch Clash (now the Bud Shootout) in 1983 and 1984. Joining Junior Johnson’s team in 1984 he went on to have one of his best seasons in 1985 when he finished fourth in the points placing.
On 1st April 1990 he suffered a near fatal crash at Darlington, South Carolina during the TranSouth 500. His car hit the water barrels at the pit stop and Neil suffered cracked ribs, a broken sternum and amnesia, forcing him into recovery and retirement from racing for three years. During this time Neil became a television colour commentator (colouranalyst) with TNN, CBS sports and TBS Sports. A sports commentator is the person who assists the main commentator by filling in any time when play is not in progress. In motor racing coverage, the colour analyst provides expert analysis and background information, such as statistics, strategy and injury reports. He was also the host for the show “Winners” for TNN. Neil was a very popular television commentator and host but despite this the lure of the race track was never very far away and he started to test cars for pals Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress in 1992. In 1993 Neil was given the all clear to be able to race again and was promised a car for the 1993 Diehard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway but, unfortunately, his car had a spin-out, took to the air and collided with the spectator fence. He was uninjured and he finished the race in the CBS broadcast booth. He was also driving in the final race of the season at Atlanta but was called off after three laps, supposedly because the engine had blown but as he was teamed with Dale Earnhardt, the point’s leader in this season’s championships; it could have been to secure the three points needed for Dale to win the season’s championship. This was his last championship start. Disappointing but Neil was not discouraged because he had secured a car and sponsorship for at least six races in the 1994 season, including the season opening Daytona 500 but on 11thFebruary, 1994, during the first practice session for the 1994 Dayton 500 his car suffered a right front tyre failure in the track’s fourth turn. His car hit the outside wall nearly head-on. Neil was taken to the Halifax Medical Centre but he was found to have died at the scene of the crash. He is buried in Pleasant Grove’s cemetery, Forest Grove Memorial Gardens. He left a widow, Susan, a son, David (also a NASCAR driver) and a grandson, Justin. Neil has been awarded Named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, Inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association’s Hall of Fame in 1997 and Inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2001. A road called “Allison-Bonnett Memorial Drive” in his hometown is honoured by him, along with fellow driver Davey Allison, who died in1993.
Neil also raced in the International NASCAR Racing Champions during 1979, 1980 and 1984 finishing second twice. Neil’s career also touched on film and television when he appeared in television movies, Bandit; Bandit Goes Country and Daytona 500 and the big screen cinema in Stoker Ace and Days of Thunder. Neil was considered to be one of the nicest, most popular drivers in NASCAR’s history.