TOLEDO, Ohio (Nov. 7, 2017) -- In 1972, Don McClean's blockbuster hit "American Pie" soared to number one on the charts; President Richard Nixon was trying to manage the Vietnam War; "All in the Family" was the number one show on CBS; "Pong", the first wide-release video game, debuted; a front-end alignment cost about 12 bucks; and Earl Bonner joined the ARCA membership for the first time. Bonner, originally from Alabama, has been signed up ever since.
"When I first joined ARCA in 1972, we raced at Flat Rock, Mt. Clemens, Toledo…Pat Haywood and I. He drove and I built engines and owned the car…ran Mt. Clemens on Thursday nights. We won a lot of championships at Mt. Clemens…won a lot of features…had to have been over a hundred."
Bonner never quit building engines either, just one of the reasons he became a valuable member of the ARCA officiating staff decades ago. It's also why, at 77, he's still here, going as strong as ever.
"Back in the early 90s…back when they had the "whistler" (compression rule), ARCA didn't have one so we used my whistler. NASCAR didn't have one either…they came over and I showed 'em how to use the whistler…then they (NASCAR) got one after that."
There have been a lot of "after thats" with Bonner who helped steer ARCA through one engine evolution after another. His training goes way back to his Alabama roots. Bonner was born in Carbon Hill, Alabama on October 25, 1940. His introduction to the American automobile came early on.
"I was about 14 or 15…my brother gave me a '53 Plymouth. He wanted to make sure I graduated from high school. I didn't even have my driver's license but I took that motor apart and rebuilt it. I always had a knack for it. I could always do things and didn't know how I did it."
Bonner eventually left Alabama and headed toward Michigan in search of a brighter future.
"I was 19 when I left. I went up north and got a job in Wyandotte, Michigan. Got a job driving a truck…I drove a truck all my life.
"Back in '58, '59 there was hardly anything going on anywhere. I had two sisters and a brother that worked up north. I hadn't planned on staying but I had a pretty good job. Because I was working, I stayed."
Bonner also started working as an official at Flat Rock and Toledo in the early 80s.
"Then I did some traveling stuff…started doing more ARCA stuff. Started going down and working Daytona when I was on vacation. When I retired in '93, that's when I went full-time."
That means that Bonner has worked more than 600 ARCA Racing Series national tour events. Outside of a repair seven years ago to fix an aortic aneurism that sidelined him for just five races, he's been to every ARCA national event since 1993. At 77, he's got no plan to slow down. In fact, Bonner is one of the officials working the composite body test at Talladega this week.
"I'm still going strong…down here (in Talladega) right now. I feel great. I take after my mom. She was a very strong person all through her life. Using your legs…being on your legs all day keeps 'em strong. I was in ARCA when Ron (Drager/current ARCA President) was in college."
Bonner's expertise as an engine builder serves the series exceptionally well.
"I was building in-line 6 cylinder engines in the early 70s…won a lot of races with those motors. In '78, I started building V-8s for the sportsman cars. After that I built late model engines for Stan Yee, Rick Hahn, Butch Giles and some other guys."
Bonner also built the first engine for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. In 1995, I built that first engine for Sammy Swindell…that was my engine. Roush-Yates didn't really have any ready…the series came in so quick. I talked to Sammy about that a few years back when his son Kevin was running an ARCA race. He remembered that…always said that was one strong short track engine."
Bonner also got in the V-6 engine building business when the ARCA Truck Series was going strong. Bonner built all of Paul Hahn's and Brett Rowe's engines during their championship runs.
Outside of driving the ARCA haulers to and from the tracks for years, Bonner also kept a sharp eye over the engine tech procedures at each race. He still does.
"I watch over the restrictor plates…spacers…check the throttle bodies…look things over. Any problem, I take care of it. Make sure they have the right gaskets, all that. We still have the legacy engines in this series, so you still have to keep an eye on that…make sure they have the right manifold, carburetor, motor…"
Bonner's job doesn’t end after technical inspection. As a lifelong trucker, he helps orchestrate the parking of the rigs and maps out pit road for the competitors. He's also the guy at the end of pit road who, under his direction, sends cars out for qualifying. During the race, Bonner also camps out at the end of pit road with the Stop-Go paddle. With cars trying not to speed yet beat the pace car (to keep from going a lap down), Bonner has to make Stop or Go decisions in quick order. In other words, Bonner, by design, is always assigned some important task, no matter what part of the day it is.
He does all that and more, and he aims to keep doing it as long as he can.
"As long as I can keep doing my job and do what needs to be done, I want to keep on doing it. I keep myself very busy. I don't pressure myself about too much stuff or worry about it."
Bonner will soon be celebrating his 57th wedding anniversary with his wife Treasure. They were married Nov. 17, 1960. They have one daughter, Lisa, who frequently comes to the races and shoots professional photography.