ATLANTA, GA, (March 6, 2001) - In March 1976, a young red haired rookie from North Georgia showed up at the Atlanta Motor Speedway to test his fortunes. His dreams were big, his pockets were empty but his team was full of the support and ...
ATLANTA, GA, (March 6, 2001) - In March 1976, a young red haired rookie from North Georgia showed up at the Atlanta Motor Speedway to test his fortunes. His dreams were big, his pockets were empty but his team was full of the support and encouragement that only a family can provide. Flash forward 21 years, and that red haired rookie is now one of the scions of the sport, leading the Dodge return to Winston Cup racing under Ray Evernham's guiding hand and doing some guiding of his own - helping rookie teammate Casey Atwood navigate a much different NASCAR than the one he entered at roughly the same age. For Bill Elliott, his return to Atlanta Motor Speedway is a dream come true. First, he has relinquished his team owner responsibilities to focus on driving. Second, he has a great new car in his Dodge Dealers Intrepid R/T and strong owner in Ray Evernham. Third, he has a jump start on a good season, earning the Bud Pole at the Daytona 500 and finishing 5th, leading 11 laps at the UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 in Las Vegas, and jumping to 7th place in the early points race. When Elliott fires the engine on Sunday and takes the green flag, he says he won't feel any different than in all his starts in Atlanta driving a Ford, but returning home is still special. "My first race in Atlanta, I doubt if my "hometown" crowd knew who I was. It was like going in blind. We didn't know what to expect," said Bill Elliott, who was 20 at the time. "But running at Atlanta is always special. It's always a lot of fun. The old track had a unique personality, but the reconfigured track hasn't been as good to me. If I win a race there I'd change my tune. Maybe we can change things this weekend." The two-time Daytona 500 winner and 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion has enjoyed great success at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, winning five races (1985 Coca-Cola 500 and Atlanta Journal 500, 1987 Atlanta Journal 500, 1992 Motorcraft 500 and Hooters 500) and four poles (1984, 1986 and 1987 Atlanta Journal 500, 1991 Hardee's 500) with 48 career starts. Elliott clinched the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup title at the track, finishing 11th in the race to Rusty Wallace's win, but taking home the points victory for the year. "I really liked Atlanta Motor Speedway the way it used to be," said Elliott. "It was a unique deal. And we were lucky and good there. We won some good races there. We did lose a few races and a championship there that I should've won. But, it was our lack of racing experience that cost us. We had to learn to lose so we could learn to win." A Family Focused on Racing It all began with a family that just wanted to race. George Elliott was always involved in racing, and his three boys - Dan, Ernie and Bill - inherited the family gene pool. They built cars from used bodies, reworked engines and worn tires, and raced them on the dirt tracks of Georgia. "People just don't understand how it was then," said Bill Elliott. "Back in those days, Ernie and I did all the work. He built the motors and I did the cars. We had no employees, just family. We tried to make enough money at the track to come back and race the next week. In the first couple of years, we were able to make eight to 10 races a year." "We just wanted to race," remembered Ernie Elliott. "Being able to go to Winston Cup was the ultimate in motorsports. We did whatever we had to do to get to the race. We were all volunteers. Most of the guys had other jobs and they paid their own way. That's all we focused on - racing." "Our race shop was set up in an old elementary school in Dahlonega, Ga.," said Bill Elliott. "The dealership was on one side, the race shop was on the other side and Ernie built engines for other people there, too. I was working in the shop 24 hours a day and then I'd go race on the weekends. I wonder how I did it. We had 11 people in the shop and some of them were family. At the track, I'd come in at 5 a.m. with the crew and work on the car before the race. You could try that today, but you aren't going to live long." The team had talent and the hard work and family contributions soon began to pay off. "I can remember the first time I ever really paid any attention to Bill, he came to Darlington with a car that his father owned," said Buddy Baker, who had some successful years in a Dodge. "He didn't have any backing or anything, yet he put the car right up front. And everybody said, 'Who is that guy?' A lot of people said he looked like Huckleberry Finn, and this and that, but it didn't take him long to get a different name than that - Awesome Bill, Million Dollar Bill, you name it. Bill Elliott has certainly been one of the best super speedway drivers around, period. He's not bad everywhere else, but there has been times when he went to Talladega and he just made you want to throw your hands up." Big Breaks Provide Stair Steps to Stardom "I'm proud of the way we did it," remarked Bill Elliott. "We nurtured it and grew it and we won. Nobody can take that away from you. Our big break came when Harry Melling offered us $500 to sponsor the team. Daddy was glad to accept it. It was $500 more than we had." Benny Parsons, who was then selling the Elliotts used race tires, also remembers that day.
"The key moment in Bill's career was when he hooked up with Harry Melling in 1980," said Parsons. "Harry offered him $500 and Bill told him he had to call his Daddy and see. Daddy said yes, and Melling became a sponsor for $500. That was a set of tires back then." Ernie Elliott said that was one of several big breaks that put them on the path to success. "First, our father spent what he could so we could race," said the Ernie Elliott. "Then, in 1977 or 1978, Roger Penske sold us his race stuff. He didn't realize it, but he did us a huge favor. It was like we were going up a flight of stairs step by step, and he allowed us to jump four steps. That got us to a point where we could attract attention from people like Harry Melling. That was like skipping two or three flights of stairs. Each break contributed to the next one." The 1985 season is the one everyone involved with Bill Elliott's race career remembers. He began that year by winning the Daytona 500, and went on to win 11 races and 11 poles. He won three of the four Winston Million races, earning him the name "Million Dollar Bill." He lost out the championship to Darrell Waltrip after an $8 part in the transmission failed, ruining any chance of winning the title.
"Short of winning the championship, it was the ultimate season," said Ernie Elliott. "You couldn't ask a race team to do any more than what we did. I wouldn't trade it for the world."
"It's the Great American Story," said Parsons. "Bill came out of the woods of North Georgia. All he wanted to do was race cars. Dan, Ernie and Bill bought old cars and fixed them up and became successful. They had total focus. They wanted to make the car go around faster than anyone else. I don't know how they did it, but they did something for $100 that took other teams $1,000, or for $1,000 when it took others $10,000."
"We built Bill's program with family, teamwork, skill and determination," added Ernie Elliott. "I think that in this series anybody that has been fortunate enough to win a championship is really special. Whether a driver wins one or seven, there are very few people who do it." Rookie Season Is Different Today
Bill Elliott said it's a lot different for today's young drivers than when he was starting out.
"We had some times back then," said Bill Elliott. "People just don't understand how it used to be. We'd sleep 12 to a motel room, spread out the mattresses and box springs so everyone had a place to sleep. You'd sleep in the car, under the van, in the hauler. You did what you had to do. Today, the competition is greater and the money is greater and the cost is greater. It would have been a lot different starting out today."
"It was a lot of hard work then, the same as now," said Ernie Elliott. "The pressure is no different. The only difference is the money and the time. Now, it's how much money you've got, while we used to pay our own way." "Casey Atwood has to be the luckiest young man around," added Baker. "He can learn from the experience of both Evernham and Elliott. He can talk to Bill, do his test programs with him, and Bill's the type of guy who will help him."
Bill Elliott Brings His Dodge to Atlanta "I don't expect the first race in Atlanta in Dodge will be any different," said Bill Elliott, who ran his Ford there for 25 years. "As long as what you're in does what you want it to do, you're okay. You don't think about the brand when you're in it. But we've moved on well. We're going to grow and work together to make this a successful deal.
"I hope the rains don't beat us in Atlanta," added Bill Elliott, who remembers a few rainy Sundays at the speedway. "They might have to cover that place. But we seemed to have gotten better from race to race. Goodyear has got a new tire and we have to get set up for that. Vegas was a good showing and we learned what we have to continue to work for." "Daddy always said that if he did have to run another brand, it would be a Dodge," said Ernie Elliott, who father's loyalty to Ford was legendary. "I'm sure he'd be proud of Bill today."
But seeing Bill Elliott in a Dodge is going to be a little different for the announcers who broadcast the races. "It's different, quite different to me," said Buddy Baker. "But I'm used to it because we live in a world of change. I look for them to win some races this year. I don't know which one, because there are times when each of them (Casey and Bill) has run really well."
"It's different seeing Bill in a Dodge," added Benny Parsons. "I haven't had to say "Bill Elliott in the No. 9 Dodge yet, but it's going to be different."