Tragedy continued to stalk stock car racing's Alabama Gang when veteran driver Neil Bonnett suffered fatal head injuries Friday when his car crashed into the Turn 4 wall at Daytona International Speedway.
The death of the 47-year-old Bonnett, one of the most popular drivers on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit, came as he was attempting a comeback in hopes of qualifying for the Feb. 20 Daytona 500. It was the latest in the tragic saga of a tightly knit group of racers from Hueytown, Ala., whose successes in stock car racing became legendary, but who have been affected by one tragedy after another.
Bobby Allison, the godfather of the Alabama Gang, suffered a head injury in a race in July 1988 that ended his Hall of Fame career. A head injury also cut short the career of Donnie Allison, Bobby's brother.
One of Bobby's sons, Clifford, was killed in a racing accident in Michigan in 1992, and his other son, Davey, winner of the 1992 Daytona 500, died last July of injuries suffered in a helicopter accident at Talladega, Ala.
Ironically, Davey Allison was going to Talladega from Hueytown to watch Bonnett's son, David, test a car.
Friday's accident occurred shortly after noon during the first practice session for today's front-row qualifying trials for the 500. After being taken to the Halifax Medical Center trauma unit, Bonnett was declared dead at 1:17 p.m.
An announcement of his death was delayed almost five hours while race officials tried to contact his wife, Susan, who had left the family home at 7 a.m. and was driving to Daytona Beach.
Witnesses said that Bonnett's car, a Chevrolet owned by James Finch of Panama City, Fla., appeared to break loose as it entered the fourth turn, then veered abruptly to the safety apron before spinning around and shooting straight up the track into the outside wall.
It was almost the same spot where rookie driver Andy Farr of New Baltimore, Mich., crashed Thursday while attempting to qualify for Sunday's ARCA 200.
Less than a year ago, Bonnett was talking about his latest comeback and said he knew people were saying, "What's that crazy guy doing, trying to kill himself driving a race car again?"
Bonnett had suffered head injuries in a crash on April 1, 1990, at Darlington, S.C., that left him with a case of amnesia so serious that he was unable to recognize or remember his wife for some time.
Doctors forbade Bonnett's return to racing for several years while he underwent neurological therapy. During that time, Bonnett became a color analyst and commentator for CBS Sports, TNN and TBS.
"Head injuries are strange," Bonnett said during his absence from the track. "You question your ability to do certain things. That type of injury is very difficult to deal with. That's where friends come in. Those who stuck by me the last three years are the ones I'm closest to now."
Last year, after getting medical clearance, Bonnett made his first start in more than three years on July 25 at Talladega. He flipped on Lap 131 in a crash that caused the race to be halted while repairs were made to the fence. Bonnett was not injured and remained undeterred about his comeback.
"That wreck wasn't near as bad as it looked," he said later. "I came out of it with a positive attitude. It was at Talladega (where) I knew I had to keep racing. When I went out to qualify . . . and started down the straightaway, I started crying. That's how much it meant to me.
"That's when I started planning to get a ride for this year's Daytona 500."
He appeared in one other race last year, the season finale at Atlanta, where he drove only one lap and retired for the day. He had qualified the car as a favor for Dale Earnhardt, his longtime hunting buddy, in case something happened to Earnhardt's car and he needed a backup in his points championship competition with Rusty Wallace.
Bonnett credited Earnhardt with helping him regain the confidence needed to race again.
"People joke about Earnhardt and myself," he said earlier this year, "but I don't care how much therapy you do, what he did was incredible. He stuck by me more than anybody when I was down. My best rehabilitation was when Dale asked me to climb into his race car."
Bonnett had planned to drive in at least six races this season.
"When they announced the race at Indy (the Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6), I decided I wanted to do that one," he said. "I'd like to drive a race at Charlotte and one at Talladega to see if I could finish in one piece, as well as Daytona and Indy.
"My wife probably would prefer if I didn't go racing anymore, but I've always done the things I wanted to do, and she knows why I want to do it."
His Winston Cup career began in 1974, when he was a rookie protege of Bobby Allison. Bonnett won 18 Winston Cup races and 20 poles while earning nearly $4 million in purses.
Bonnett won the 1979 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, but his best finish in the Daytona 500 was a third in 1980. He did, however, win twin 125-mile qualifying races in 1980 and '83.
Bonnett's first superspeedway victory was in the 1977 Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway, in the final success for a Dodge in Winston Cup competition. He also won the World 600 in 1982 and '83 at Charlotte, N.C.
His career the last 10 years, however, was plagued by accidents and injuries.
Bonnett's death was the 24th on the Daytona track since it opened in February 1959, including motorcycles and go-karts, as well as stock cars.
Survivors include his wife, son David, 29, and daughter Kristen, 20.