PENSACOLA, Fla. — One year after leaving Five Flags Speedway in an ambulance and wondering when, or if, he would race again, Justin Bonnett returned to the track both appreciative and reflective.
Saturday’s Snowflake 100 won’t mark Bonnett’s first race back from a fiery crash that left him burned and with a broken leg, but it does serve as the anniversary of a night that could have ended his career.
Bonnett, the grandson of late NASCAR Cup Series star Neil Bonnett, remembers little from the lap-56 incident in 2019 where his car struck the spinning machine of Jarrett Parker — dislodging the fuel cell from Parker’s car and sending it careening across the banking in turn three.
But everyone watching remembered the fiery inferno that ensued, including Bonnett.
“Everything happened so fast that I honestly never saw (what happened) coming,” Bonnett told SPEED SPORT in an exclusive interview. “It was just so quick. A lot of stuff happened in a short amount of time.”
A recovery period that began last December and was expected to move relatively quickly dragged on, Bonnett said, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March and brought normal life to a standstill.
“My recovery has overall been good,” Bonnett noted. “It’s been long, due to COVID-19 and everything else, but now that I’m back walking and able to move, it has been much better.
“The doctors had to set my [broken] leg, and then I ended up getting staph [infection], so they actually had to put a temporary rod in for antibiotics before they pulled the temporary rod out and put the actual rod back in my leg once the staph was finally gone,” he continued. “That was probably a three-month process and then I had to wait on everything to start healing.
“It was just a mess at the time, but now that I’m through all that and back here, it feels good.”
In his first race back at Montgomery (Ala.) Motor Speedway in August, Bonnett qualified on the pole and finished fifth in pro late model competition. His return to Five Flags came for twin 75s on Aug. 29.
“We started back running a little bit here and there probably four months ago, and have had some pretty good runs this year. But we thought that this was a good time to come back and I feel pretty good about it because we’ve got a decent car,” Bonnett said. “We’re in a lot different position this year than we were last year. Then, we had a new car and I was learning new things. We probably shouldn’t have been here (for the Snowflake 100), but that’s part of it and you live and learn.
“It was a hard way to learn, but we learned, and now we’re going to keep moving.”
Though some might have hesitated to return to the driver’s seat after a crash like the one Bonnett went through, he never wavered in his desire to return to competition.
“I thought there would have been, but there really wasn’t,” Bonnett said when asked if he felt nerves the first time he got back behind the wheel. “I really never thought about it, honestly. I tried to keep it all behind me and I was able to, pretty much. The first couple of turns, I thought I would think about it, but I really didn’t. From there I was just able to keep going and it was really comfortable to get back.”
What would a successful Snowflake 100 run be for Bonnett in the wake of all he’s endured?
“Making the race, obviously, is the first task,” he said, a faint smile appearing on his face. “I mean, naturally as a racer, you come down here to win … but if we finished [inside the] top five, I would consider that a win for me after the year that I’ve been through and everything that happened last December.
“We’re back here to put that behind us and I believe we’ll do that before it’s all over with.”
Qualifying for the 22nd Allen Turner Hyundai Snowflake 100 is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. CT. The top 30 cars will make the race on speed, with a 50-lap last-chance qualifier immediately after time trials.