|Neil Bonnett and the #51 Country Time Chevrolet, 1994|
I remember February 11, 1994 like it was only yesterday.
I was eleven at the time, and was already really big into NASCAR in the wake of “Days of Thunder.” My favorite drivers were Ricky Rudd and Derrike Cope, primarily because of their neon-colored paint schemes. I was the only NASCAR fan I knew in my town - other than my brother, anyway - but even at that age, I knew who Neil Bonnett was.
After seeing Bonnett’s cameo in “Thunder,” I watched his show “Winners” regularly on TNN. I also enjoyed his color commentary for CBS, and I felt the same connection with him as other greats of the broadcast booth like Bob Jenkins, Eli Gold, and Ken Squier.
It was because of this that Bonnett’s death in a practice crash for the Daytona 500 hurt so much.
The only time I watched Bonnett race was in 1993, when he raced at Talladega driving the Mom ‘n Pops #31. Bonnett’s first Cup start since 1990 was a much-needed feel-good story just days after fellow “Alabama Gang” member Davey Allison’s fatal helicopter crash at the track. Bonnett had his own frightening accident in the race itself, but fortunately walked away. That November, Bonnett parked his #31 at Atlanta, helping longtime friend Dale Earnhardt earn his sixth of his seven Winston Cups.
Bonnett had eighteen career wins in 362 Cup starts, and though he hadn’t won since 1988, the desire to return to the track was just too strong. He wanted to run just one more season. For 1994, he joined up with Phoenix Racing, the single-car operation owned by James Finch. His #51 Chevrolet would be sponsored by Country Time, the lemonade company which adorned TriStar Motorsports’ #68 cars in bright yellow and pink. The late Bobby Hamilton carried TriStar’s equipment to his 1991 Rookie of the Year title. Bonnett would run a limited schedule in the pink and yellow Chevrolet - just the biggest races of the year, starting with the Daytona 500 - then retire once more, perhaps staying in the booth or on “Winners” for the rest of his career.
Instead, on February 11, Bonnett lost his life in a vicious practice crash at age 47.
In the years since, Phoenix Racing has lived on, accomplishing amazing feats with limited resources, all the while keeping the spirit of Bonnett alive. It was there when Jeff Purvis raced an outdated and unsponsored Bill Elliott car into the field for the 2001 Daytona 500. It was there when Brad Keselowski gave Finch his first Cup win at Talladega in 2009. And it was there again when Kurt Busch nearly won last year’s Cup race at Sonoma, then took a beat-up Chevrolet to victory lane in the Nationwide race at Daytona.
When I heard last week that Busch would be driving a bright pink and yellow #1 Chevrolet in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, I was so excited that I could scarcely think of anything else all week. I knew immediately what this would mean to people like me who remembered Bonnett, and to the fans at Talladega. I dug out my old Neil Bonnett diecast and picked up some Country Time Pink Lemonade for the race. I anticipated that the commentators on ESPN would be equally excited.
But all they did was make fun of the colors.
With the exception of Dr. Jerry Punch, who offered a few brief statements of his own, everyone on the ESPN crew handled the significance of the Finch car with startling insensitivity. Yes, there was an acknowledgment that the car resembled one driven by Bonnett, but that’s where the analysis ended and the jokes began.
Nicole Briscoe, Brad Daugherty, and Rusty Wallace kept mocking the paint job, how it resembled Travis Pastrana’s “Trapper Keeper” scheme and how it was too bright to look at. Allen Bestwick was reluctant to say the car had pink on it, even though the Country Time cars were among the most prolific on the track when he was doing radio broadcasts. Shockingly, even Kurt Busch himself joined in on the fun, cracking wise about how you need a welder’s mask to look at the car, all the while wondering aloud why Finch insisted this car be kept up front at Bonnett’s home track.
But what hurt the most was ESPN’s total disregard of the man whom the car was meant to honor. Not once in qualifying or the race did we ever see Bonnett’s face, nor any vintage clips of Bonnett’s eighteen wins. There is literally no excuse for this - ESPN’s first live flag-to-flag NASCAR telecast in 1981 was one of Bonnett’s wins at Atlanta. Surely, they could have easily showed that during the three-hour rain delay.
This may strike some of you as a trivial concern, but if you think that, you’re just not seeing the big picture. Imagine if, after the terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon, someone made fun of the marathon’s logo depicting a unicorn. You know why no one did that? Because it’s unspeakably inappropriate. The mere passage of time doesn’t make an off-color comment more acceptable.
More than this, what ESPN did represents a fundamental problem with today’s NASCAR - a complete and utter disregard for its history and the people who made the sport what it is. And I’m sure it’s a big reason the sport’s lost so many of its longtime fans.
Today’s NASCAR has three different commercials for erectile dysfunction, but apologizes when a driver curses after a misguided pit reporter shoves a microphone in his face.
Today’s NASCAR only obsesses over the progress of Danica Patrick instead of smaller teams like Tommy Baldwin Racing and the plight of “start-and-park” teams.
And, most despicable of all, today’s NASCAR mourns only the loss of Dale Earnhardt, but not his best friend Neil, and never mind Rodney Orr, J.D. McDuffie, Kenny Irwin, Jr., Tony Roper, John Nemechek, Grant Adcox, and the 44 others who may not be household names, but gave their lives to give us the sport we have today.
I am deeply offended, ESPN. You owe us old school fans an apology.