After being involved in racing all my life, I never imagined I would be standing on top of a race hauler in the middle of the NASCAR garage area at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, February 14,1994.
Just four days earlier, I had reported to Cotter Communications in Charlotte, NC after they had hired me to become the Public Relations Representative for driver Bobby Labonte and the No. 22 Maxwell House Pontiac Winston Cup team.
The job was my first-ever team PR assignment at any level of racing and looking back, I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground.
You could forgive me if I was more than a little overwhelmed. I was fresh fish, a NASCAR rookie after earning my way here by working short tracks all over the Midwest for nearly 10 years in an effort to get this chance.
Whatever my experience level, no one could have been prepared for what this day – my fifth on my new job and my first at the racetrack – would later bring.
Before the first practice for the 1994 Daytona 500 rolled off, I walked from the garage area out to pit road to get the lay of the land. It was amazing.
As I sat on the pit wall, I could smell the fresh cut, immaculately manicured grass in the tri-oval area and I wondered aloud what they would think of all this back in snowbound Wisconsin, my home state. The size of the track and huge, empty grandstands were overwhelming. Everything about Daytona is impressive, especially the first time you go there.
I’d covered the Indianapolis 500 as a newspaper reporter, but this was something else.
This was Daytona, NASCAR’s hallowed ground.
I had made it. This was the ‘big time.’
With practice about to start, I began the long walk back to the garage area. On the way, I waved to Neil Bonnett as he rolled by heading for pit road. You couldn’t miss Neil’s neon pink and yellow No. 51 Country Time Chevy – or his smile – as he as he idled by.
Neil was one of a kind, not just in NASCAR, but in all of racing. He was also one of the few people I knew in the garage area that day.
A year earlier, I had the pleasure of working with Neil when he agreed to be the Honorary Chairperson for the Wisconsin Motorsports Charities Recognition Dinner. The banquet, which raised money for disabled adults, selected Neil as the 1993 Chairperson because of his long battle back from a debilitating head injury he’d received in a racing accident at Darlington (SC) Raceway in 1990.
Neil flew to Milwaukee for the event and as a board member and public relations specialist for the charity, I was assigned to take care of him. Despite the fact we were only together a little more than a day, I felt like we were best friends when he left.
Then again, Neil had that kind of effect on a lot of people.
The day prior to my inaugural 1994 Daytona gig, Neil’s PR rep and my new Cotter Communications co-worker, Jon Sands, was called to Phoenix to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. Since Maxwell House Coffee and Neil’s sponsor – Country Time Lemonade – were Kraft General Foods sister companies, two other new Cotter associates, John Singler and Keith Waltz, and I were to “look out” for Neil’s No. 51 car while Sands was away.
I was told that meant simple, procedural things like distributing the press kits and funneling any interview requests to Neil. If anything else were needed, Singler, the senior member of the on-site staff, would handle it.
The extra duty was only going to be for a day or so because Sands was expected to be in Daytona by the end of the weekend. Besides, it was just practice, nothing was going to happen.
Except the worst.
Within minutes of start of the first practice session, a panic rushed through the garage area. Neil had crashed hard in Turn 3 and the buzz was it was serious. Waltz came to me and said I needed to get over to Halifax Medical Center as quickly as possible. Neil was being transported directly to the hospital and Singler was already on his way. Waltz indicated he would stay behind to take care of business at the racetrack.
I quickly headed toward the hospital just a few blocks up International Speedway Boulevard. Once inside the hospital’s Emergency Room, I went to a private waiting area where Singler came out and told me the gravity of the situation.
His voice cracked as he gave me the news – the doctors were working on Neil, but it was bad, real bad. I was told to not say anything and let the doctors and NASCAR make any statements. Just mingle in the crowd Singler said, try to keep everyone calm.
It didn’t take long for the press and a dozens of NASCAR race team personnel to flood the waiting room at the hospital. Neil had a lot of friends and they all wanted to be there. Everyone wanted to know what was going on back in the emergency care area.
I did what I was told and said as little as possible. I remember looking around the room and thinking here were all the people I was used to seeing on television every Sunday. Normally, I would have been a little star-struck at the gathering of famous racers, but given the surreal events of moment, there was no joy in seeing their faces.
Finally, at 1:17 p.m., the announcement that Neil Bonnett had passed was officially made.
People sobbed as the statement was read. I cried as well. Neil was my friend too. Maybe not like those in the room who knew him for years, but a friend just the same.
Now, in what I would come to know as racing’s dark side all too many times over the next 20 years, Neil Bonnett was dead.
He was only 47.
When the garage opened that fateful morning, I stopped by to greet Neil’s race hauler to tell him Singler, Waltz and I would be handling things in Sands’ absence. Neil was cool with the arrangement and seemed more eager to discuss my new good fortune of landing a NASCAR Winston Cup PR job.
One of the last things I remember Neil saying to me was “Welcome to NASCAR, John” as he patted me on the back and headed into the trailer to get ready for the upcoming practice.
Looking back, I was probably one of the last people to talk to Neil – and surely was one of he last to see him alive as he motored by me heading out on the track that morning.
I’ve never quite been able to shake that and it’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since that fateful day. Talk about a lousy first day at the track experiencing your ‘dream job.’
Welcome to NASCAR indeed, John.
About John Close
John Close covered his first NASCAR race as a professional media member in 1986 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Since then, Close – a former Associated Press newspaper sports editor – has written countless articles for numerous motorsports magazines, trade publications and Internet sites.
Close also spotted more than 150 NASCAR Cup, Nationwide and Truck events from 1995-2008.
His Close Calls column appears regularly on www.CloseFinishes.com, www.MotorsportsAmerica.com and www.RacingNation.com. His work also regularly appears in Challenge Magazine.
Close has also authored three books – Tony Stewart – From Indy Phenom To NASCAR Superstar and NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – From Desert Dust To Superspeedways.