What does $3 mean to you? A new roll of paper towels when your kitchen runs out? An extra topping on your next large pizza? Spare change for the homeless man on the street or the church donation box?
Neil Bonnett was a beloved NASCAR driver and commentator
Neil Bonnett was a car racing enthusiast from the day he was born. He grew up in the NASCAR-heavy town of Hueytown, Ala., and he got his start in professional racing working for Hall of Famer Bobby Allison on his race cars.
Allison soon came to find something special in Bonnett, and he took him under his wing as Bonnett set out to begin his own NASCAR career. He eventually accepted Bonnett into his racing family, and Bonnett became part of the “Alabama Gang” along with Red Farmer, Donnie Allison, and Davey Allison.
Bonnett made his NASCAR debut in 1974, but he didn’t become a full-time driver until two years later. In 1977, he secured his first career win at the Capital City 400. A few years later, Bonnett had established himself as one of the very best in the NASCAR Cup Series.
The “Alabama Gang” member finished inside the top 10 of the Cup Series rankings in three straight seasons from 1983-85. He capped off the dominant run with 18 top-10 finishes and two wins in 1985. Bonnett finished the season ranked No. 4 in the championship series, which marked the best finish of his career.
But in 1990, Bonnett got into a life-threatening crash at the TranSouth 500 that left him with amnesia. He survived the wreck but decided to retire from racing shortly after. Following his retirement, Bonnett took his talents to the booth to become a commentator for TNN, CBS Sports, and TBS Sports.
He became a beloved commentator just as much as he was a beloved race car driver in his prime, but it all came to a tragic and sudden end a few years later.
Neil Bonnett’s tragic death
Although he officially retired from racing in 1990, Bonnett never lost the need for speed. He returned to the NASCAR track a few times each season after switching to the booth, but he never finished inside the top 10 in any race past 1990.
In 1994, Bonnett secured a sponsorship for six races during the Cup Series season, but he didn’t even make it to the first one.
During a practice run for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 11, 1994, Bonnett lost control of his car and slammed into the outside wall head-on. He later died from his injuries at 47 years old.
Bonnett crashed because of a $3 mistake
At first, it seemed as if Bonnett simply lost control of his Chevrolet before the crash that ended his life. But further investigation told a different story.
Soon after Bonnett’s death, The Orlando Sentinel found that a $3 shock mount on Bonnett’s car broke off during his practice run, which caused the Chevy to swerve into the wall. The same piece also broke off during Rodney Orr’s fatal crash a few days later.
The Sentinel had this to say in 1994:
The newspaper, with help from experts in metals and in high-performance vehicles, found in a four-month investigation that in both accidents, NASCAR officials failed to test the tires and other critical car parts, interview crew members or do any other in-depth probe. After holding the cars for no more than half a day, NASCAR returned them to the teams.The Orlando Sentinel
Following Bonnett’s death, NASCAR said it was his driving that caused the crash, but The Sentinel later found that NASCAR retracted those findings after objections from Bonnett’s family and his friend, Dale Earnhardt.
The beloved Bonnett could still be alive today if not for the most tragic $3 mistake ever made in NASCAR history.
Editor’s note: We revised our wording in the introduction to read ‘Spare change for the homeless man on the street or the church donation box?’ in an effort to be more sensitive to the broad range of life situations and beliefs represented in our audience.