For Bonnett, survival is racing again 3 years later, he returns for 'own peace of mind' AUTO RACING

July 23, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Most people would consider themselves lucky just to survive a life-threatening crash. NASCAR driver Neil Bonnett was in such a crash at Darlington in 1990, one that affected his memory and equilibrium, but he is having no second thoughts about getting back behind the wheel.

"I consider my lucky blessing to be an opportunity to do it again," he said. "I'm counting myself blessed that I can get back in the race car and compete this Sunday."

He will compete in the DieHard 500 at Talladega, Ala., in a car prepared and owned by Richard Childress, who also owns the Dale Earnhardt team.

Childress, also a former driver who misses the heat of competition on the track, says he is doing a favor for a friend, "because I know how much Neil wants to do this."

Bonnett, 46, had a good Winston Cup career before thDarlington wreck, winning 18 races. That's good enough for a 10th-place tie in the modern era.

He even won this Talladega race in 1980.

But over the past three years, as Bonnett has worked to recover, he has become best known as a race commentator for TBS, TNN and CBS. His return to racing has pained his wife and worried his friends.

"My wife, Susan, didn't understand initially," he said. "But this is something I have to do. For myself. For my own peace of mind."

He tried getting in a race car a year ago and couldn't handle it. He still was having dizzy spells, and he wasn't comfortable -- not comfortable the way he thought he should be.

But now, after spending the past eight months helping Childress and Earnhardt test their cars, he has seen steady improvement.

The Childress team has two superspeedway cars for races at Daytona and Talladega. Watching Bonnett improve, Childress decided to make one of those cars available to Bonnett at Talladega if Earnhardt finished the Firecracker 400 at Daytona earlier this month without wrecking.

"I was biting my fingernails through that entire race," Bonnett said. "I think it was the longest race I've never driven. And then Dale won and I knew I had a ride."

When Childress initially told Bonnett his plan, Childress said the veteran driver just stood there grinning with watery eyes.

"I know how bad he wants to get back in the race car," Childress said. "Neil has helped us a great deal with our testing, discovering things about our car, and this is something I can do for him."

Bonnett says this is not a comeback. Childress has not committed to giving him a car for any other race.

Bonnett says he has had every kind of test to make sure he is 100 percent.

He has listened to doctors who have told him not to drive again. He has listened to his wife, who is hurting because he is going to drive again.

But he says he has to do it.

"The perfect scenario for me on Sunday would be that I drive a good, safe race, have a good finish and can get out of the car and say, 'I'm through.' I want to make that decision for myself. I don't want some doctor making it for me."

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