Here’s One Vote For Class of ’19 To Have Bonnett On It

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 14 2019
Hall of Fame nominee Neil Bonnett and Jeff Hood, the author the piece below, in 1981.

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

“Everything’s better, with Neil Bonnett on it…”

Nearly four decades later, that goofy jingle still resonates in my mind.

It was a blistering hot and humid Labor Day Monday in 1981 in Darlington, S.C. Stock car racing’s heroes had just concluded 500 miles of action-packed racing around the famous 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval and the focus was squarely on victory lane.

The famous Wood Brothers and their No. 21 Purolator Ford had just snapped a year-long losing streak and the bubbly was about to flow in the winner’s circle.

In those days, it was common for race tracks that hosted NASCAR Winston Cup Series events to open the gate at the start-finish line and usher fans into what is considered hallowed ground.

Monday Sep. 8, 1981 was no exception.

As a 16-year-old racing fan, it was a dream come true to walk the famous Darlington International Raceway frontstretch, realizing the best drivers in the world (with apologies to the Indy drivers and Formula 1) had just spent the better part of a sun-baked afternoon wheeling their high-powered machines on this ribbon of asphalt.

The four folks in our group figured a few minutes later we’d take a chance, jump the inside wall and walk pit road. Apparently, we weren’t violating any rules at the time. In fact, we were embraced by friendly crew members who were packing their pit boxes following the four-plus hour 367 lapper.

My chest was bowed out as I walked away with a pocket full of lug nuts.

In the distance, we heard some cheering and noticed the mist of a champagne party.

For a teenage race fan on fire for NASCAR, roaming the racing surface and pit road minutes following a Cup race was something I figured I’d never experience. Approaching victory lane to get a glimpse of the Wood Brothers and their white and candy apple red Ford was as miraculous as manna from heaven.

The closer we got, we could hear three drunks (I’m assuming they had enjoyed the race from Darlington’s famous, rowdy infield) were repeatedly singing “Everything’s Better, with Neil Bonnett On It” to the tempo of the well-known at the time Blue Bonnet margarine jingle.

Ah, what the hell. Our completely sober crowd joined in. Minutes later, we had about 100 others around us musically serenading race winner Neil Bonnett.

We came just hoping to get a glimpse of my childhood heroes Leonard, Glenn and Delano Wood. Years later, my most memorable moment from a day chock full of memories would occur three hours later. That’s when we randomly chose a steakhouse to dine at on the way back to Georgia on Interstate 20 in Columbia, S.C. that evening.

As fate would have it, we entered the restaurant and the first two persons we saw were Neil Bonnett and his father, Len, who had stopped for some chow before driving on to Alabama.

This was long before the days of drivers quickly exiting the race track and rushing to the closest airport with a 5,000 foot runway and hopping aboard a Gulfstream jet.

We were actually sitting next to the guy that had just won the prestigious Southern 500. To this day, I am still in disbelief.

Now, my mama raised me to be kind, polite and respectful. But at this moment in time, I developed a sudden case of amnesia. I was in the process of working up the nerve to interrupt the Bonnetts and as they feasted on a couple of large steaks.

I figured I’d better pounce or regret it forever more.

So I sprang out of my seat and asked for the obligatory autograph and photo.

Neil Bonnett’s mouth was half full as he uttered “Heck, yeah! Come on over here young man.”

I had actually met Bonnett six months earlier in Atlanta on pole qualifying day. I have a cherished photo as evidence.

But this was all different. This guy had just made history by conquering the famous Darlington International Raceway on Labor Day.

I was in the midst of a celebrity and hero.

Our entire party all got autographs and photos with the Bonnetts. Turns out we wound up sitting at their table for about 10 minutes just talking about that day’s race.

Moments later, the Bonnetts jumped into a Ford (of course) street car and headed west toward Hueytown.

For the persons in our group that evening, it was a night we’ll never forget.

A good ol’ boy who was a charter member of the Alabama Gang had just managed to gain five new fans for life.

Bonnett’s life would end just over a decade later during a practice crash at Daytona.

During his career, Bonnett amassed 18 Cup Series win but never came close to winning a championship.

On March 13, 2019, it was revealed that Bonnett is a first-year nominee for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

In sports, the greatest are typically measured by the wins and championships they accumulate.

But In the case of Bonnett, his greatness should be measured in the ability to play a key role in transforming NASCAR from a regional sport into a national phenomenon. Bonnett did this quite well.

For his contributions to the sport, Lawrence Neil Bonnett should be a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer.  

It’s a no-brainer, a hole-in-one, a grand slam, a hat trick and a slam dunk all combined.

And if there’s any doubt, just think margarine.

“Everything’s better, with Neil Bonnett on it…”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 14 2019
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