Remembering Gil Sonner
Sunday, February 12, 2017
by Eric Arnold, Track Historian
All of us at Knoxville Raceway are saddened to learn of the passing of Gil Sonner today.
Gil was born on October 17, 1934 in Des Moines to parents Josephene and Donald Sonner. “Gilly” as he is known, has been the car owner of the #47 sprint car since he began racing in the late 1940’s and 1950’s in the Des Moines area. He first appeared at Knoxville Raceway in 1955 with driver Lee Pinckney.
Sonner is primarily known for his run of success at Knoxville Raceway, but he has also won sprint car features in 18 different states with 15 different drivers and was at the first World of Outlaws event at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in 1978.
After Gilly’s first race at Knoxville in 1955, he didn’t come back until 1966. Sonner would become as much of a fixture of the Knoxville Raceway as the black zook clay surface. His first feature win came with driver Jerry Potter in 1979 and continued winning in the 1980’s with drivers Billy Robison, Rocky Hodges and Scott Ritchhart. Sonner went on to win races in five decades with his last win coming in 2010 with Don Droud Jr. His cars won races with the World of Outlaws, All-Stars, IRA, and NSCA.
Sonner won the 1983 Jackson Nationals with Rocky Hodges. In 1994 Sonner won his only Knoxville track championship with driver Danny Lasoski, winning an incredible ten features that season. From 1995-1998 Gilly took the 47 full-time on the World of Outlaws tour with driver Johnny Herrera and a young Daryn Pittman in 1999. In 1996 Sonner won Eldora Speedway’s King’s Royal with Herrera. At Knoxville he has collected 24 feature wins and qualified for the Knoxville Nationals championship A Main eleven times with nine different drivers. It’s an impressive resume and he helped bring up two future World of Outlaws champions at the same time.
Gil was known for never being in a hurry. He was calm, collected, quiet, humble, and respected by his competitors. When he had success he seemed embarrassed to be in the spotlight. His race cars were a reflection of his demeanor. No flashy paint scheme, just a simple car with a 47 pasted on the side of the wing and tail tank. He was a journeyman mechanic, putting together the equipment that he had and making the best of it. The man could squeeze a dime out of a nickel it seemed. He didn’t always have the funds to be a top contender, but he was always a contender.
There were highs and lows for Gilly, with the lowest being the night his brother Burt lost his life racing for him at Knoxville in 1974. The brothers had raced together for five season prior and the death of Burt was a big blow. Because of losing his brother you never heard Gilly pressing his drivers to race harder or do more than they were comfortable with in the car.
Over 50 different drivers have bolted their seat in the Sonner 47 over the years. Some famous, some not. Lasoski, Pittman, Herrera, Jac Haudenschild, Jimmy Sills, Keith Kauffman, Kenny Jacobs, Hodges, Sammy Swindell, Shane Carson, Matt Moro, Mackie Heimbaugh, Jim Grafton and Terry McCarl, are some of the notables. He also fielded cars in the Masters Classic at Knoxville for Bob Kinser and Jim McElreath and was the winning car owner for the first “limited” sprint car event at Knoxville in 1981 with driver Bob Thompson.
Sonner entered his first Knoxville Nationals in 1967 with driver Bob Fisher and he entered his 50th consecutive Nationals in 2016 with Jeff Swindell who fittingly qualified the car for the Saturday A Main where they finished 21st.
Longevity, humility and a desire to race are the traits Gil Sonner embodied. Last year when he was asked why he keeps racing he answered, “We haven’t won enough races yet.” Gilly won more than races. He won a lot of friends and is truly one of the greatest people to be a part of Knoxville Raceway and will be deeply missed.
Gil Sonner was inducted into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2015.
We send our deepest sympathies to his children Donnie, Cindy, Audrey, his nephew and 360 competitor Russ Hall, and the rest of their family. Gil was preceded in death by his wife Yvonne who passed away in July of 2007.
Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.