Death of best friend Bonnett is hardest loss yet for Earnhardt

February 20, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt is the Man in Black, The Intimidator. He is NASCAR's six-time champion.

In a sport where death can be the price paid for participation, men like Earnhardt often seem bigger than life.

And here at Daytona International Speedway, where Earnhardt will contend again for his first Daytona 500 victory today, he has worked hard at living up to the image.

Publicly, the champion smiles, signs autographs, shakes hands and seems to get a genuine kick out of everything from installing a seat in his IROC car to winning Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race.

Privately, sitting in the living room of the spacious motor coach he has here, with its large front window facing the garage area, he removes his sunglasses and rubs his eyes and looks solemn.

For Earnhardt, his car owner Richard Childress and their GM Goodwrench team, this has been one of the hardest weeks.

"I don't feel the same as when I came down here," said Earnhardt, who two weeks ago talked about winning the race that has eluded him.

"We're bound and determined to defeat that race and be a Daytona 500 winner," he said then. "The fact that I haven't won it drives me. I want to win it because it's our Super Bowl, but also because it's a race and I want to win every race I run. But it ain't going to devastate me if I don't."

Since he said that, two men have been killed here. Rookie Rodney Orr last Monday and veteran Neil Bonnett 10 days ago.

"You lose your best friend," Earnhardt said, his voice trailing off into a sigh. "There's a big void there losing Neil."

Bonnett's car crashed into the Turn 2 wall during a practice session, killing him instantly. He was Earnhardt's best friend.

"I guess it's all part of the game," Earnhardt said. "But I'm not tired of the game. I'm not Michael Jordan. I sure don't want to play basketball."

He sat there reflecting. Recalling other drivers who had been lost in racing accidents, drivers he had admired when he was growing up. Fireball Roberts. Tiny Lund.

"We lost a lot of guys in the old days," he said. "Many more then than now . . . . But, racing is a tough sport. It's tough to follow it and see some of the tragedy that can happen. And it doesn't happen that often. Our safety record is pretty good."

But it has hit home with Earnhardt. When he came here he knew he would be mobbed with questions about his quest. In 15 years he has not won the Daytona 500.

He has eight top-five finishes. Two seconds. He finished 14th in 1988, after leading with two laps to go. He has had blown tires, hit a bird and been outrun.

But he insists that not winning this race doesn't eat at him.

"When I drop down in the seat, I'm dead, all-fired, busting trying to win it," Earnhardt said. "But when I step out of that car and I've finished second and a tire's blown out, it's not the end of the world. My world's not going to end.

"I don't sit around and ponder. When this day's over, it's time to go on to tomorrow. You learn to make it in life. It's like losing your dad or losing your best friend Neil or something. You learn to remember the good times, the things they did and go on. It's a tough thing to do. But you do it."

But when he was reminded the other day that he has been trying to win this race for 15 years, he did a double-take.

"It's not 15 years," he said. "Is it 15 years? Well, I'm not going to lay awake at night for the rest of my life thinking about it. Sure the night after you lose it -- or for the week after, like the year we blew that tire -- maybe.

"But when you get outrun, like we did by Dale [Jarrett] last year, I can take getting beat. I can't take beating ourselves or something happening you have no control over."

He will notch his belts the way he always has when he gets in his race car today, remembering the first lesson his father taught him, "to make yourself comfortable in your car" and that means feeling safe in it.

"I can be at my best in this race," Earnhardt said. "I have to be. You know you've got to be able to focus on what's going on with you and what's around you. You can't let things consume you.

"I've had some tough weeks. But it's been tougher on my team."

Bonnett had worked with Earnhardt's team for more than a year as a test driver.

"They lost a true friend, someone they admired and respected a lot," he said.

Earnhardt was not just laying it on. Friday, Will Lind, the team's veteran mechanic and tire changer of 10 years, said this will be his last race with the pit crew, though he will continue to work at the team's shop near Charlotte, N.C.

"I just thought it was time to re-evaluate things and come off the road," Lind said. "A lot of things have happened over the last two years to make me think. Last year, with Davey [Allison] and Alan [Kulwicki], and now this thing with Neil. I still have the desire, but I guess I want to step aside before I lose it."

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