by Ronnie White
It's not true that nice guys finish last. Nice guys are winners before the race even starts.
Neil Bonnett was that kind of a winner.
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.
The Hueytown, Alabama, native broke into Cup racing in 1974, with his first win coming three years later. During his career, he won several high-profile races, including the 1980 Talladega 500 and the Southern 500 in 1981. He also won at Charlotte and Daytona, and drove for such legendary car owners as the Wood Brothers, Junior Johnson, and Richard Childress.
Susan Bonnett recalled her husband's first on-track experience. He had borrowed a car to race at Montgomery, where he spun completely off the track where there was no guardrail. "He was in it full time from then on," she said. "He was hooked."
Bonnett began spending time in the Hueytown race shops of Bobby and Donnie Allison and Red Farmer. Before long, he was part of the Alabama Gang.
Hall of Famer Bobby Allison learned about the young driver's talent firsthand. They staged a classic duel at BIR, running 17 of the 25 laps side by side, Bonnett on the outside, Allison on the inside, metal to metal. Allison then hired Bonnett to drive his car on short tracks all over the nation, and he won more than 50 races in two years.
A 1990 wreck at Darlington, S.C., appeared to end his career. Bonnett incurred severe head injuries and doctors told him to give up racing.
At the time, Bobby Allison was still suffering effects of a life-threatening head injury he'd suffered at Pocono in 1988. As usual, when Bonnett came back out in public, he managed to make light of both his own condition, and Allison's.
"Bobby's speech had been impaired a little bit," Bonnett once recalled after being visited by Allison. "Between Bobby trying to say what he was thinking and me trying to remember what he was saying, we had a helluva conversation."
Bonnett was an unsung hero when Davey Allison's helicopter crashed into the Talladega infield in July of 1993. It was Bonnett who scrambled into the wreckage -- with spilling gasoline all around that could have exploded at any second -- and pulled Farmer to safety. Bonnett then wriggled back in to get Davey, who was unconscious. Davey died the next morning, but Farmer survived with only a broken arm.
In 1993, Bonnett ran two races for owner Richard Childress, including one at Talladega that ended in a violent flip. He walked away from that wreck and agreed to a six-race schedule for owner James Finch, beginning with the Daytona 500.
On Feb. 11, 1994, as Bonnett was practicing for the 500, his car went out of control and into the wall. One of the sport's most popular figures was dead at 47 years old.