Mourning, with understanding


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The memories keep coming while the mind is numbed by the losses.

Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Clifford Allison and now, Neil Bonnett.

All dead.

Kulwicki and Davey Allison were killed in aviation accidents last season, Clifford Allison during a practice lap at Michigan International Raceway, August 1992.

And Bonnett, killed Friday afternoon while practicing for next Sunday's Daytona 500.

Bonnett's funeral will be held today in Hueytown, Ala.

A memorial service was held here last night, at the Central Baptist Church, and when it was over, there was a greater sense of peace.

"The question that keeps being asked is why," said driver Darrell Waltrip, who spoke at an open microphone. "It's always, 'Why do they do it? Don't they know they could get killed?'

"It bothers me because I think the one thing that makes us -- race car drivers, every athlete -- different, the thing people don't understand is that we are committed people.

"It's not proving we can do something to someone else. It's not a death wish. We see the danger. We live with it.

"That's why athletes bounce back so fast from injury. Doing what we do. It's what the Lord brought us here to do. We sacrifice. Sometimes we sacrifice it all.

"Neil and I grew up in this sport together, and I'll miss him. But I know he wanted to be doing what he was doing. Commitment is a fine thing."

More than 200 of Bonnett's racing friends attended the hour-long service that was not open to the public.

Bonnett was the last of a group of Winston Cup stock car drivers known as the Alabama Gang.

Bobby Allison and his brother Donnie were the leaders. Now they stand on the sidelines, survivors of racing accidents that took their mental and physical abilities. They stand now in what seems to be never-ending mourning.

Davey and Clifford were Bobby Allison's sons, Donnie's nephews.

Bonnett was the best friend of all of them.

Aside from Clifford, who was just beginning the climb, each had great success, battling for victory, claiming a total of 131 checkered flags.

The injury and loss of each one hurts, but there is something about Bonnett's death that causes an even greater ache for Bonnett's wife Susan and his children, David and Kristen.

Neil Bonnett and his family seemed to have escaped this kind of tragedy. He had had a serious crash that resulted in a head injury in 1990, and at the direction of his doctor, retired.

He went into broadcasting and did it well. He was safe on the sidelines, seemingly away from tempting fate.

It was a good feeling -- for everyone but Bonnett.

Last season, he helped car owner Richard Childress and champion Dale Earnhardt test their cars, and he did it so well Childress did a favor for his longtime friend and gave him a stock car to race one more time.

When Bonnett talked about the opportunity to return to racing, he was happy. His eyes glittered, and the smile beneath his bushy mustache wouldn't be contained.

When Childress talked about his joy over being able to give his friend another chance to do what he loved doing best, he was not sympathetic to those who wished Bonnett to stay off the race tracks.

"No one knows what's inside a man and how much this chance means to him," said Childress, adding that no one can or should tell another person what to do.

bTC And former Winston Cup champion and current broadcaster Ned Jarrett reflected on that last night.

"Neil was a racer," said Jarrett. "That means you drive it as hard as you can for as long as you can. . . . How can we do anything but have respect for a person who is doing exactly what he wanted to do? He was out there still working on his dreams."

Bonnett still was recovering emotionally from Davey Allison's death. He was the one who pulled Allison from the crashed helicopter.

He was the one who had to call Bobby Allison and tell him he had now lost two sons.

Bonnett marveled then at Bobby Allison's strength and at the support and encouragement Allison gave him in pursuing his dream of driving a race car again.

He said the best scenario would be to get in Childress' race car at Talladega last summer, drive well, get out of the car and say that's it.

"I just want it to be my decision to retire, not a doctor's," he said.

He drove. He crashed. And though he emerged from that wreck all right, those who loved him cried.

Last night, Bonnett's friend Don Hawk talked about flying back to Hueytown with Susan Bonnett and reflecting on his always-present sense of humor.

"Susan remembered Neil talking about dying in racing," Hawk said. "He told her not to make a fuss, no big deal. Neil told her to get a burlap bag and bury him out back, 'And just make sure it's deep enough that the dog won't find me.' "

The thought brought a smile to Susan Bonnett. Last night, it brought a laugh to those remembering him, too.

"I just love being in the race car, racing," Bonnett said, often. "I know it's hard for Susan, for a lot of people to understand how much racing means to me."

Last night, his friends understood a little better. It will take a lot of time for those who loved Neil Bonnett to put away the sorrow.

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