Thursday, January 08, 2015

NASCAR Hall Fame Profile: Bill Elliott

This is the first in a series of profiles on the five members of the Class of 2015 of the NASCAR Hall Of Fame. The five will be inducted in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Jan. 30, in a ceremony to be broadcast live at 8 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network, Motor Racing Network Radio and SiriusXM Satellite Radio.

When Bill Elliott climbed into his Ford on a late-winter afternoon in 1976, little did fans at North Carolina Motor Speedway know they were witnessing the birth of a NASCAR Hall of Fame career.

The 20-year-old Elliott, whose car was fielded by his father George and crewed by brothers Ernie and Dan, didn’t last long in his NASCAR premier series debut. Engine problems sidelined the Elliotts early for a finish of 33rd in the 36-car field.

In fact, Elliott’s first campaign of eight races – four for his father and four with Bill Champion, another independent owner-driver – produced six DNFs.

First impressions, however, can be deceiving. The Dawsonville, Ga. family may have lacked resources – as did many NASCAR premier series hopefuls during the economically depressed 1970s. What wasn’t in short supply was perseverance.

The lanky, red-headed Elliott lasted long enough to catch the eye of Michigan industrialist Harry Melling, whose one-race sponsorship in 1981 dramatically changed NASCAR history.

Elliott, born Oct. 8, 1955, ultimately won 44 races, 16th among all premier series drivers, over a 37-season, 828-start career that ended in 2012. All but two victories came on tracks longer than a mile in length; 16 of them from a pole position start. Elliott’s 55 career poles rank eighth all time.

Proclaimed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” by fans and media, Elliott and his No. 9 Ford Thunderbird set speed records at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. His 212.809 mph mark established at Talladega on April 30, 1987 before engine restrictor plates reduced horsepower, is unlikely to be matched.

Elliott was at his best on NASCAR’s biggest stages winning the Daytona 500 twice and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway three times. In 1985 he completed an unprecedented sweep of Daytona, Darlington and the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway to capture the “Winston Million” – a $1 million bonus for winning those three of four marquee events.

The driver’s legion of fans voted Elliott NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver an unprecedented 16 times.

While Elliott may have come from nothing in terms of economic support, his birthplace in Georgia’s northern mountains provided something of a golden heritage. Stock car racing, rooted in the area’s moonshine culture, ran deep and produced many of the sport’s earliest stars.

Some argue that the impromptu Sunday night events in a nearby river bottom, in which the liquor haulers wagered on whose cars were the fastest, represented the origins of modern stock car racing in the 1930s.

Four Dawsonville drivers – Gober Sosebee, Roy Hall, Lloyd Seay and Bernard Long – won races on Daytona’s beach/road course from 1941-59. During the 1940s, 12 of 15 of those races were won either by drivers or owners hailing from the small community. NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Raymond Parks, a Dawsonville native, owned the car in which Red Byron won the inaugural NASCAR premier series championship. Elliott became the fifth Daytona winner among the “Dawsonville Gang” when he won the 1985 Daytona 500.

So it was no surprise that the Elliott brothers were enamored of cars and racing. Bill would take apart and reassemble his father’s race cars; his older brother Ernie owned a speed shop.

“Actually I got my boys into racing because I wanted them to say away from the back roads,” said George Elliott, whose Dahlonega Ford Sales dealership backed the family’s racing effort. “If they were going to be driving fast, I wanted them to do it in the right place.”

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