Dodge, Neil Bonnett Histories Overlap at Richmond RICHMOND, Va., September 5, 2001 - As the original Dodge heyday in NASCAR was winding down the late 1970s, the Winston Cup career of the late Neil Bonnett was just getting started. The two...
Dodge, Neil Bonnett Histories Overlap at Richmond
RICHMOND, Va., September 5, 2001 - As the original Dodge heyday in NASCAR was winding down the late 1970s, the Winston Cup career of the late Neil Bonnett was just getting started. The two crossed paths in the fall of 1977 as Bonnett's first two Winston Cup wins were the last two for Dodge in that era.
Bonnett's first win came at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway on September 11, 1977. He was driving a Dodge bought by Jim Stacy from Nord Krauskopf of K&K Insurance. The services of legendary crew chief Harry Hyde were part of the deal.
Driving the No. 5 car, Bonnett led three times for 250 laps of the Capital City 400. With the late Harry Hyde's coaching, he managed to hold off a late-race charge by Richard Petty and the No. 43 Petty Enterprises Dodge.
"Harry was flying me by remote control," said Bonnett in the winner's circle. "I ran the ragged edge all day, and Harry's coaching over the radio helped. He told me what groove to take and when. This victory is as much his as it is mine."
Bonnett's second Winston Cup win came two months later in the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario, Calif. Bonnett led eight times for 96 laps in his first superspeedway win. Once again, his toughest competition came from the Petty Enterprises STP Dodge. Bonnett passed Petty with five laps to go and blocked his last-lap maneuver to win by two car-lengths.
"The track is 60 feet wide and I must have used up 62 feet in the last lap to keep Petty behind me," said Bonnett after the win. "I've always dreamed about running up front with these guys. This win is really a dream come true."
Eligibility rules eliminated the mid-sized Dodge Charger from Winston Cup competition the following year and forced the Dodge teams to use the full-sized Dodge Magnum. The principal Dodge drivers, Bonnett and Petty, had trouble running competitively in the bulky cars and switched to other brands mid-season in 1978. Although independent teams labored on with Dodge race cars through 1985, the brand was absent from the winner's circle from the time Bonnett won at Ontario until Sterling Marlin won at Michigan in 2001.
Bonnett went on to start a total of 363 Winston Cup races, winning 18 and finishing 83 in the top five. He also won 20 poles, nine of them with Dodge. His second career pole - his first in a Dodge - was won at Richmond in February 1977. Bonnett also won the pole at Richmond in February 1978 driving a Dodge.
Born July 30, 1946 in Hueytown, Alabama, Bonnett started his racing career on the short tracks in and around Hueytown, Birmingham and other Alabama towns. He made his home in Bessemer, Alabama, working as a pipe fitter and racing Modifieds at night. His life took a major turn one day when he decided to visit the area's best-known race car driver, Bobby Allison.
"I was running my own equipment out of my shop in Hueytown and he came walking in the shop one day," recalled Allison. "He said, 'I wanna help you.' I said, 'No, no, no, I'm really busy. I had to work all night last night and I don't need anybody in my way around here. Leave.' Neil said, 'No, no, no, I want to help. I'm a good mechanic. I'll do anything you want me to do.' I said, 'Neil, please leave.' He says, 'No, I'm not gonna leave. I'm here to help you. What do you want me to do? I'll wash parts, I'll sweep the floor, I'll do anything you want.'
"So, I said, 'Well, I'm putting this engine together. Here, help with this stuff here,' and he started to help me and we really worked away. You know, he was the best helper I had, immediately, and we worked all night. At about 6:30 the next morning he said, 'I gotta go home, take a shower and go to work. I'm supposed to be at my regular job.' I said, 'Well OK, go ahead. I'm going to go home and sleep for a couple hours.'
"That afternoon about 3 o'clock, here he comes again and says, 'Here I am. Let's get this thing finished.' We worked until about midnight and finished an engine that would have taken me another day to do. I got the engine put into the car and left for that weekend's racing. On Monday, Neil came walkin' into my shop again. 'Here I am again, what're we gonna do this week?' And he really, really helped me.
"He helped me like that for about three weeks, and finally I said, 'Neil, you have been a tremendous help to me and you won't take any pay. What can I do for you?' He said, 'Some day, I want to drive one of your short-track cars.' Well, we went on that week and then Thursday he mentioned again, 'Someday I want to drive one of your short track cars.' I said, 'Tomorrow night is the night. You take that car and go to Smokey Mountain Raceway up in Maryville, Tenn., and I'll take this car and go to Lonesome Pine, Va.'
"I'd been very successful at short tracks and had earned some of the expense money to operate my Winston Cup, Grand National car," continued Allison. "I had so little sponsorship money and it was expensive to keep things going, so I'd go run the short tracks. I'd run really good, win frequently, but also was able to earn appearance money, show money."
Somehow, Allison had promised two promoters that he would be at their races that Friday night. His solution was to send Bonnett to one of them. "I called (the promoter at Smokey Mountain) and said, 'I've got a problem. My car's coming, but I'm not coming with it. Neil Bonnet is.' The promoter said, 'Oh, no, you can't do this to me. I told the people you'll be here. I won't accept anybody else.' I said, 'You have to take this guy Neil Bonnet. You'll like him.' 'No, no, I don't know any Neil Bonnet. I don't want him, you gotta come, you promised you'd come. I'm paying you appearance money to be here.' I said, 'Forget the appearance money. Neil Bonnett will be there with the car and you apologize to the people for me and tell them I'm sorry, I made a mistake.' 'Oh, boy, you're really hurting me. You're really hurting me.'"
"So I went off to Lonesome Pine and Neil Bonnet took my other car and went to Smokey Mountain. I told Neil, 'I'll call you in the Speedway office at 11 Saturday night to see how you did and let you know how I made out.' So, I called. The promoter answered the phone. 'Oh, you gotta send him back next weekend. Promise me right now you'll send him back next week.' 'I told you you'd like the guy. What happened?' 'Oh, no, no, I can't tell you. You gotta promise right now you'll send him back next week.' I said, 'What are you talking about? You know this was a one-race deal.' 'No, no, no, we gotta have him next week.'
"I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'Well, he won the race, but he sat on the pole and some guy spun him out. He went to the rear and he passed everybody and he got spun out again. He went to the rear again and he passed everybody and came back and won the race. The people love him.' He said, 'I'm even gonna give you your deal money. Gotta send him back next week.' So, I said, 'OK, I'll send him back next week.'
"And so Neil started driving my short track car for a year and a half and won 60 times," continued Allison. "Incredible, incredible performances. He could go to a track that he'd never seen before and win the race, or he could go to a track that had the toughest competitors that were anywhere in the NASCAR short track Sportsman or Busch circuit and beat 'em on their home track. From that, Neil built his own Grand National car at my shop, got a little bit of sponsor help and ran his first couple of Winston Cup races of his career, and then went from that right into the Harry Hyde car."
Allison said Bonnett and Hyde had a great relationship almost immediately, and that was not unusual for Bonnett. "I don't know of anybody that didn't like Neil Bonnett," said Allison. "He'd go out there and race you, and if he beat you, you'd find some way to feel good about it instead of feeling bad about it. It was hard for me to feel good about anybody beating me. I always felt bad about people beating me, but Neil really could make you feel good about the event and enjoy the event, as long as it wasn't some big crash disaster. We didn't have a lot of those, fortunately."
Bonnett was the first native-born Alabaman to join what was known in NASCAR Winston Cup racing as The Alabama Gang. The original members - Red Farmer and Bobby and Donnie Allison - raced out of Alabama but were all born in Miami, Florida. They got the nickname at a race in North Carolina one weekend when they pulled their trailer into a track there and driver Jack Ingram made the comment, "Oh no, here comes that Alabama gang again."
Bobby Allison's son Davey became known as a second-generation member of the Alabama Gang, but he was also born in Florida. Bonnett was the first native son to join the storied gang. "Neil was born in Alabama, so he was the purebred," said Bobby Allison. "He wasn't a transplant like the rest of us."
Another long-time fan of Neil Bonnett is Butch Nelson, dealer principal at the Neil Bonnett car dealership in Hueytown. Nelson knew Bonnett first as a sponsor, became his friend and ultimately joined him as a business partner. Nelson had a used-car business that became one of Bonnett's early sponsors. When they both became more successful, Nelson and Bonnett owned an auto parts store together, and later bought the dealership.
"Neil liked driving the Dodges because they had so much raw horsepower in those days," said Nelson. "He said, 'You better hold on tight when you stood on the gas because it will snap your neck back and pull you down the straightaway.' Neil said the Dodges had so much power, all they needed to win races was a good set of brakes."
Nelson says Bonnett was a character and tells stories about his escapades. Nelson recently recalled an evening in Riverside, Calif., when Bonnett couldn't find a place to park his rental car at the motel. After quizzing Nelson to make sure they were at the right motel, Bonnett knocked over a low brick wall and parked in a flower bed. "He tore the whole front end off the rental car, locked it up and went to bed," said Nelson. "He did stuff like that all the time.
"Neil Bonnett didn't care about the money," continued Nelson. "He wanted to have a good time and he wanted to lead races. I've seen him burn a car up when he could have babied the car and won the race."
Bonnett's infectious spirit and humor became known to a much larger audience after a 1990 accident at Darlington Raceway forced him to take up a career as a racing analyst on television. Bonnett quickly became one of the best in the business with his ability to colorfully call a televised race. He also hosted a weekly "Winners" program on TNN that took viewers inside the world of motorsports.
Regardless of his success in television, Bonnett never lost his passion for racing and returning to the track was always his goal. He tested for Richard Childress in 1992, and by 1994 he was ready to compete again. He went to Daytona Beach in February to practice for the Daytona 500 and lost his life in a single-car incident in turn four, almost the same place his good friend Dale Earnhardt would later lose his life.
His life and career were cut short, but Neil Bonnett has not been forgotten. His win at Ontario was remembered in August when Sterling Marlin put Dodge back in the winner's circle for the first time since Bonnett's superspeedway win. His two poles and first Winston Cup win at Richmond will be remembered this weekend as 10 drivers extend the Dodge legacy at the track. He will also be remembered for his insights and humor on television. Despite the fact that his last name is pronounced like the ladies hat "bonnet," he signed off his weekly program as "Cecil de Bo-nay," sporting a beret, ascot and "French" accent.
"He was my wife's favorite French driver," said Allison. "Judy is the one who started that by calling him 'Neil Bo-nay, my favorite French driver.'" <pre>
This week in Dodge history: * 9/11/60 - Jim Cook drove the only Dodge in the race to victory in Sacramento, Calif. The 100-lap race took place on a one-mile dirt track at the fairgrounds. The victory was Cook's first Grand National win in 23 starts. * 9/11/64 - David Pearson and his Cotton Owens Dodge won the Buddy Shuman Memorial 250 at Hickory Speedway in Hickory, N.C. * 9/9/66 - David Pearson and his Cotton Owens Dodge won their 14th race of the season by again taking the Buddy Shuman Memorial at Hickory Speedway. * 9/11/66 - David Pearson won again two days later at Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds in Richmond. It was Pearson's fourth win in his last seven starts. * 9/9/69 - Seven winged warriors entered the garage area at Talladega for the track's inaugural race and the first race for the Dodge Charger Daytona. Later that day, Charlie Glotzbach turned a practice lap at 199.987 mph. * 9/11/70 - Bobby Isaac and the K&K Insurance Dodge took a turn winning at Hickory, N.C. It was the 10th win of the season for Isaac. Richard Petty finished second in a Plymouth, followed by Bobby Allison in a Dodge. * 9/9/73 - Richard Petty and his STP Dodge avoided a fiery crash that halted the Capital City 500 for more than a hour to score his seventh straight win at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway. The race was also slowed by rain for 86 laps. * 9/8/74 - Richard Petty had his Richmond string interrupted in the spring race but came back to win the September event again for his 12th win at the .542-mile Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway. Petty finished the race on a flat tire. * 9/11/77 - Neil Bonnett won his first Winston Cup race at Richmond.