50 Years of nascar racing ~ Before He was awesome (Post 15)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Back in 1985, Bill Elliott took the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit by storm, winning 11 races and the Winston Million, forever earning himself the nickname "Awesome Bill." While he had won three races in 1984 and finished third in the points, no one was expecting Bill Elliott to dominate that season so thoroughly. But far from being an overnight success, Bill had already been racing in the Winston Cup ranks for 9 years when he finally took his place among the sport's elite drivers.
Bill Elliott was the youngest of three sons born to George and Mildred Elliott of Dawsonville, Georgia. George Elliott owned a home supply center and dabbled with auto racing. In fact he first owned a Grand National car in 1966, driven by Don Tilley at the fall race in Rockingham. Tilley finished 42nd in field of 44 cars after suffering steering problems.
Growing up, Bill and his older brothers, Ernie and Dan, started working at the family business at an early age, and perhaps that is one of the reasons Bill still prefers to own his own team rather than work for someone else. By his early teens Bill was driving delivery trucks throughout the twisting roads of Northern Georgia, at rates of speed he smiles and says he would rather not discuss these days. The racing bug had already bitten. Bill and his brothers began in racing selling parts out of a truck to racers at tracks in the area. Ernie would eventually start his own engine business, while Bill specialized in building chassis and setting up suspensions. He also did a little racing and on September 7th, 1974 Bill won his first sportsman race at the Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, Georgia. More victories soon followed and the family saw Bill's talents as a God-given gift that they should help him develop.
In those days, racing was a lot cheaper and it was easier to break into the Winston Cup ranks than it is today. In a recent interview, Elliott recounted racing in those days cost about $2500 a weekend, about what a family of four would spend attending a race weekend these days.
Elliott's first Winston Cup start came at the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, February 29th, 1976 in a Ford owned by his father. The car carried the number "9" that Bill would later make famous. He managed just a 33rd place finish after popping an engine on the 32nd lap. His next start at the Atlanta 500 in March went even worse. Bill finished dead last after losing a driveshaft 21 laps into the race. That summer he wound up getting several rides in a Ford owned by Bill Champion (the number ten car) and he fared a bit better, finishing 23rd at the World 600, 19th at the Firecracker 400 in Daytona, and 14th in the Nashville 420. The 14th at Nashville was destined to be the best finish in Bill's eight starts that year. Elliott wound up 41st in the points that year. No one was throwing around the word "Awesome" quite yet.
Bill Elliott attempted to qualify for the 1977 Daytona 500, but an 18th place finish in the qualifying race didn't get him into the field. He was back at Rockingham in March and qualified fairly well at 18th, though a blown clutch relegated him to a disappointing 30th place finish. At the Southern 500, September 15th, 1977, Bill Elliott entered a baby blue Ford owned by his dad with white number "52" decals on the doors. That day Bill posted his first top ten, finishing 10th, 12 laps off the pace. He would finish tenth again in a Mercury his dad owned at the fall race in Charlotte and those two top-tens were the best finishes he had in his ten starts that year, on his way to 35th place in the points.
For the 1978 season George Elliott purchased some Mercurys from Roger Penske that had run at times the previous season with Cam 2 sponsorship and Dave Marcis at the wheel. Penske was quitting NASCAR racing and supposedly Elliott got a long deal on those cars. They were not even repainted, but left in their red and white Cam 2 trim with the sponsorship decals taken off and the familiar number 9 and Bill's name added to the doors. Right out of the box, Elliott and his "new" used Mercury showed promise, qualifying ninth and finishing eighth in the 1978 Daytona 500. At Talladega, another track destined to become one of his favorites, Bill managed to bring the car home sixth. He also finished sixth at the Southern 500, and was showing enough promise that he was asked by LG Dewitt to drive an Oldsmobile at Atlanta, where he finished a disappointing 37th after losing an engine. Still, things were looking up for the young racer from Georgia, with 5 top ten finishes and over $42,000 in earnings.
Money was tight early in 1979 and Bill didn't start many races, though he did manage to bring his tired old Mercury home 7th at the spring race at Darlington and 6th at Talladega. Bill was also able to attract his first few sponsors for limited deals, including Knutson's Kawasaki-Ski Doo at Michigan and Thermo King in Charlotte. The team also made a deal to put the names of any fans willing to kick some money into the war chest on the car to help defray expenses. Among those who chose to do so was one Harry Melling, who would one day buy the team.
There was a savage fiery wreck on the first lap at the July race in Pocono that year. Involved were Al Holbert, the sports car racing legend, and the owner of a Chevrolet dealership, and Roger Hamby, who drove a self-owned Chevy race car, number 17, with sponsorship from Kings Inn. Bill was not even at the track that day, but Hamby later asked him to fill in, in the 17 car while he recovered. That's right, Bill Elliott drove a Chevrolet at one point in his career, alternating between that car and his Dad's Mercury. The best he finished in Hamby's car was 11th at Bristol. But in a strange quirk, the rationale of which seems lost to history, the number 17 and the King's Inn sponsorship were on the Elliott family Mercury at the Southern 500 while Hamby's Chevrolet was driven by Jim Vandiver carrying Bill's traditional number 9. Whatever led up to the change, it was the greatest day of Bill's career to that point, and the first indication race fans got he was the real deal. That day Bill finished second, albeit two laps behind the master of Darlington, David Pearson, who was subbing for an injured Dale Earnhardt in the Roy Osterlund Chevrolet. Bill led five laps that day, and held off the determined charge of another promising young rookie, Terry Labonte, and established stars, Buddy Baker and Benny Parsons. The $19,000 payday was a Godsend for the struggling team, and a shot in the arm for Bill's fledgling career.
1980 was not a banner year for Bill Elliott. Finances were tight and the cars were getting old. The family tried to make as many races as possible but it involved enormous sacrifice. Often, 12 people would have to share a single motel room, with Bill getting his own bed the night before the race so he could sleep better. Clothing was bought at thrift shops, and Mildred Elliott credited the ½ acre garden she tended and a lone cow with keeping food on the table. Occasionally the Elliott team would show up at a race without enough money to buy tires for the entire event, and Bill had to drive conservatively to avoid tearing up equipment. Not one to forget favors, Bill recalled in a interview years later that Benny Parsons and his team had once lent them a set of tires just so Bill could finish a race. Bill managed just 12 starts that year, one of them driving the Hamby Chevy, and just four top ten finishes, none of them higher then sixth.
1981 posed an even more formidable challenge. New NASCAR rules mandated that starting at Daytona that year teams were required to switch to the "Intermediate" body cars ( 110 inch wheelbase). The tired Mercurys would finally have to be retired and new race cars prepared. For a small and struggling operation like Elliott racing, it was a major expense, and the family had to decide whether to borrow heavily to obtain the new cars or just throw in the towel. Thankfully they had enough faith in Bill and his driving abilities, and Ernie's engines, to take the plunge. But in order to pay the bills (no pun intended), Bill was going to need to run stronger.
Right out of the box, Bill finished 6th at the Daytona 500 in a "Box Bird" (the angular styled 1981 Thunderbird) that the pundits said was hopelessly outclassed by the General Motors products. While the team still couldn't attend every race, when they showed up Bill was finishing in the top ten, including a fourth at the spring race in Darlington. Disaster struck in the form of a 1st lap crash at Talladega that wiped out one of the brand new cars and had the team seriously reconsidering their future. Another crash at Michigan in June wiped out yet another car. Into the void stepped Harry Melling, a Michigan based auto parts magnate who provided the team with some much needed support, though he was already sponsoring Benny Parsons in the 15 car. Bill carried the " Mell Gear" logos, promoting Melling timing chain sets, first in cars that were either blue and white (a flip flop on the paint scheme on Parsons' car) or the more familiar red and white. Bill struggled along that year with six top-tens in 13 starts and wound up 30th in the points. But Melling was impressed enough with Bill and his team, he bought the operation in 1982, the start of one of the most successful associations in the history of stock car racing.
1982 was the season that Bill Elliot established himself as a major player in the Winston Cup ranks. The team still didn't try to make every race, but they did run in 21 races thanks to Melling's financial support. Bill showed with competitive equipment he could run with anyone and finished fifth at the Daytona 500, then backed that up with a third at Darlington. It was at Charlotte during the World 600, he showed the world he was ready not just to run up front, but to contend for the win. Bill was leading Neil Bonnet with 13 laps to go when he made a rookie mistake getting through lapped traffic, allowing Bonnet to bull his way past for the win. After the race, Bonnet admitted had it not been for Bill's momentary hesitation deciding whether to go high or low to pass the lapped car, he probably wouldn't have been able to pass Bill. Elliott trailed Neil Bonnet in the Woods Brothers Ford across the line by a mere two car lengths. At the Firecracker 400 that July, Elliott was closing fast on veteran Bobby Allison when he ran out of time, and had to once again settle for second, two cars lengths away from his first victory. At Charlotte for the Fall race, a rookie mistake in strategy by the pit crew to take two tires rather than four, allowed Harry Gant to edge Bill out by about three seconds. The season ended on a bit of a down note, with Elliott, not a well versed road racer, finishing 25th, the last car running, at Riverside.
Still, Harry Melling had seen enough that he knew Bill Elliott was a diamond in the rough, and he committed to having the team run a full schedule in 1983. Melling began seeking additional backing. Also at that point, Ford was about to introduce a sleek new Thunderbird that made the 82 model look like the box it was shipped in. And Bill and his brothers weren't exactly laying back in green recliners waiting for Daytona to arrive either. They were out in the shop, with Bill trying a few tricks to the chassis and Ernie seeking those elusive few more horsepower. The pieces were falling into place that would eventually change Bill Elliott from a lanky slow speaking red head from Georgia, to Awesome Bill Elliott, one of the most dominant drivers in NASCAR of the 1980's.
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