Less than a month after being seriously injured in a crash, Justin Bonnett can’t wait to get back in a race car.
The grandson of late NASCAR star Neil Bonnett, Justin suffered a broken left leg, three fractures of his left foot and burns on his neck, arm and leg after being caught in a fiery wreck on Dec. 7 during the Snowflake 100 at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
“I’m pretty good now that I’ve been able to get home and get everything situated,” the 26-year-old Bonnett told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview Thursday. “It’s a long road to recovery but things are looking up.”
Driving the No. 12 car, the same number his grandfather drove for much of his NASCAR career, the younger Bonnett was running 26th on Lap 54 in the prelude to the next day’s Snowball Derby when he was unable to avoid the spinning car of Jarrett Parker.
The impact tore the fuel cell from Parker’s car, igniting a fireball that engulfed Bonnett’s car.
“I remember pretty much everything (about the wreck),” Bonnett told NBC Sports. “It didn’t knock me out. I remember trying to get the fire off me. I know I was on fire heavily and was trying to get it off me, but I couldn’t get it off me.
“I really was in an unsure state, trying to figure out what was going on, because everything happened so quick. Normally, when a car spins out, they don’t come shooting back up the racetrack. I was still wide-open, naturally, when that happened, I hadn’t lifted yet.”
Russell Brooks, brother of Five Flags Speedway technical director Ricky Brooks, hopped off a rescue truck, was the first to reach the burning inferno and helped Bonnett to safety.
“I couldn’t get my belts undone,” Bonnett said. “Russell Brooks reached in there and pulled my belts loose. I fought my steering wheel, trying to get it off, finally got it off, pulled out (of the car) and about halfway up my back when I realized something was wrong, I couldn’t get out. Russell Brooks reached in and pulled me out and then I saw my foot was broke.
“It’s really a blessing Russell (who was uninjured by the fire) was there because it would have taken longer for someone to get me out. He was the first to get to me and get me out and get me away from the fire.”
But he added, “Hey, it happens, it’s part of racing and you move on.”
Bonnett has undergone three surgeries on his left leg and left foot, as well as several treatments for mild-to-harsh second-degree burns on his neck, entire left arm and left knee and thigh.
It’s an ongoing process, but the racing community has also reached out in a big way to show its support. He points to help from Kelley Earnhardt Miller and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress as being key factors, particularly Childress, who put Bonnett in touch with a noted North Carolina burns specialist for treatment.
Bonnett’s friends also started a GoFundMe page that has already raised over $12,000 to help with Bonnett’s medical expenses.
“The racing community has came together and it has truly blown me away,” Bonnett said. “Yes, it’s hard, because Taylor, my girlfriend and we have an 11-month-old, it kind of makes it tough on her because she has to do everything.
“I’m like a baby now because I can’t walk, I’m on a walker, yes, it’s impacted the around the house part and made it more difficult, but it’s something we can get through. It tests at times, but it helps you in the long run.”
One of the biggest keys to Bonnett’s recovery is the attitude he has.
“You have to try and stay positive on the outlook and the way things go,” Bonnett said. “That’s the way I am, that’s me.
“When something like this happens, it’s very easy to get down. But I’m trying to stay as positive as I can and have a positive outlook on everything as much as I can to keep things going and hopefully, sooner than later, get back in the seat and keep going.”
He then adds with a laugh, “It’s getting lonely sitting in this house, though.”
Doctors have told Bonnett it will take at least six months to make a full recovery. He says with another laugh that he has a faster and more optimistic recovery timeline than his doctors: he’s targeting March 7 and the 56th annual Alabama 200 — one of the largest late model races of the year — at Montgomery (Alabama) Speedway as his first race back.
“I don’t know if I’ll make it,” Bonnett said of his ambitious timeline. “It’s before three months (since his crash, but I’m doing everything on my end and if I get cleared I’ll go back, but it’s all going to depend on the doctors.
“I have thought about getting back. I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s probably going to be different at first, it’s going to be a learning curve for me because of everything that has gone on. But I feel once I get back in there and put it all behind me, I feel like we’ll be okay.”