#13 - A Million to One
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
Practically all fans of NASCAR racing know that Bill Elliott won the Winston Million back in 1985. Lost on many newer fans is how the still up and coming driver from Dawsonville stood the world on its ear back in 1985, and the miraculous comeback at Talladega in May of that year that gave Elliott a shot at his fortune. Against odds best described as one in a million, a million dollars went to one driver who earned it the hard way.
The Winston Million program had been announced at the awards banquet in New York at the end of the 1984 season. If one driver could win three out of four races, (the most prestigious, the fastest, the longest, and the oldest, the Daytona 500, the World 600, the Winston 500, and the Southern 500 respectively) that driver would collect a million dollar bonus from RJ Reynolds. In those days a million dollars was a pretty impressive figure. No NASCAR driver had ever won a million dollars in purse money in a year, much less in a day.
Going into that year's Daytona 500 Bill Elliott had won four races in his entire career. But from the moment the familiar red and white Coors Thunderbird rolled off that truck, Bill and his brothers showed they were there to race. On pole day, Elliott blistered the track, easily taking the first starting position with a scorching 205.114 miles per hour run. In his 125-mile qualifying event Bill almost lapped the field, beating Darrel Waltrip in the potent Junior Johnson Chevy by 37 seconds. From the moment the green flag dropped, Elliott showed he was no fluke. He streaked into the lead with the only other driver capable of running with him, Cale Yarborough, running another Ford Thunderbird. Yarborough lost an engine early in the event and Bill took a commanding lead as competitor after competitor lost engines trying to keep the 9 car in their sights. Even that day the Elliott team hit a couple speed bumps on the path to victory. Elliott ducked into the pits on the 145th lap, and a quick pit stop by the Coors crew had him comfortably back into the lead. But a NASCAR official noted the block off plate located where the headlights would be on a street Thunderbird had come loose and insisted Bill come back into the pits and tape it back up. The pit stop for the repairs consumed close to 42 seconds. Bill returned to the track and in a mere 11 laps reassumed the lead of the race. Neil Bonnett in a Junior Johnson Chevy, made a desperate attempt to reel Bill in but with six laps to go, he also lost an engine, handing second, or perhaps "Best in class" to Lake Speed. Bill Elliott had won his first Daytona 500, and the first leg of the Winston Million.
But there were going to be challenges, on and off track, to the seemingly unstoppable Coors Ford. At the third race of the season at Rockingham, Elliott lost a tire, slugged the wall a ton, and limped his car back to the pits. He would be limping awhile himself as well, after fracturing a leg in the wreck. Bill bounced back from the injury, not only driving in the next race on the schedule at Atlanta, but winning it in convincing fashion.
The Chevy teams were complaining loud and long that the Thunderbirds had an unfair advantage on the big tracks, and just like they did this year, NASCAR caved into the complaints and changed the rules. The rule change that went into effect April 29th required the Fords to run a roof height ½-inch higher, while allowing the Chevys to lower their roofline the same amount. To that point there had been eight races. Chevys had won 5 of them and Ford 3, with Elliott being the only Ford driver to win. Again, is this sounding at all familiar?
The next race after the rules changes went into effect was the Winston 500 at Talladega, the second race of the Winston Million. Elliott and his crew shrugged off the rule changes and shattered the qualifying record, posting a 209.398 speed to take the pole. Cale Yarborough was over 3.5 MPH behind, sitting on the outside pole. Elliott was running in third place, saving his car, when disaster struck. A heavy cloud of white smoke belched out of the nine car, and it looked to all the world like one of Ernie Elliott's potent mills had puked its guts. Bill coasted to the pits and Ernie was able to diagnose the problem as a broken oil fitting. Repairs were made, but by the time Elliott returned to the track he was a tick over two seconds to going two laps down to race leader Kyle Petty. It seemed only some well-timed caution flags could put Bill back into contention, but no yellow flags flew. Amazingly, a certain red and white Thunderbird sure did. Elliott began running a string of 205 MPH laps and made up a full lap on the field, but he was still almost 2.66 miles behind the leader and the tires on his Thunderbird were getting worn. Still, that Coors Ford charged on as fast and relentlessly as the worst pursuing monster of your childhood nightmares, shrieking in indignation as it continued to click off laps in the 204 mile per hour range as the stunned fans watched the most incredible come back run in the history of the sport. On lap 145, Bill passed Cale Yarborough like that other car was dragging a pair of boat anchors, and shot into the lead. A caution flag finally flew on lap 159 allowing Elliott to pit for tires and fuel. Nine laps later he retook the lead, and waved a polite good bye to the rest of the field on his way off to the checkers. Elliott needed to win only one of the two remaining races in the Winston Million to claim the prize. Running the way he was that day, there wasn't a sober man who would have bet against him, and that was the day Bill Elliott became Awesome Bill.
Elliott continued his dominance on the big tracks, taking the win at Dover two weeks later. From there it was off to Charlotte to try to claim the big bonus. Naturally there was a tremendous amount of media attention, even from sources that didn't normally cover the sport, and the pressure got to the Elliott team, as did all the demands on Bill's time. At that point he was still a vital part of the crew, wrenching on the chassis of his car himself, along with brothers Ernie and Dan, and because of the media spotlight, Bill could not attend to his duties leading up to what was the most important race of his life. Things started all right, with Bill once again winning the pole, but 13 laps after the green flag dropped it was midnight for the Cinderella kid from Dawsonville. Brake problems forced a lengthy pit stop and not even the awesome Coors Thunderbird with his Awesomeness behind the wheel could overcome a 21 lap deficit.
That summer Bill won four times, taking both races at Pocono and Michigan. He was second to Greg Sacks at the Firecracker 400, and had dominated at the summer race at Talladega when his engine dropped a cylinder. Even running on 7 cylinders, Elliott managed to bring his Ford home fourth and on the lead lap. The Elliott team's traditional weak point was the short tracks, but at the race at Bristol one week before the Southern 500, Bill managed a fifth and went into Darlington with a 138 point lead in the points standings.
After the debacle at Charlotte, Elliott and his crew appealed to the media and fans for a little breathing room to try to prepare for the event. Armed South Carolina State Troopers were assigned to keep the press and the curious out of the Elliott team's garage area. They flanked him everywhere he went as well. Interviews and photo ops took place only at scheduled times. The pressure was enormous, but at least Bill and the crew had some time to work. And once again Elliott responded by taking the pole for the event.
Things seemed to go according to plan for the first 14 laps, but then the handling on the car went away. Harry Gant, Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough swept by Bill and began duking it out for the lead. In fact, Gant almost lapped Bill before a caution flag flew on lap 267 allowing Bill not only to stay on the lead lap, but to duck into the pits to have the crew make some badly needed adjustments to try to get the car back to form. Elliott returned to the track noticeably faster, but still running in fourth. Then one by one, the leaders began suffering misfortunes. Harry Gant lost a cylinder and finally blew the engine. Dale Earnhardt drove too hard into turn two and put himself into the wall. Elliott's heart and those of the fans in the stands skipped a beat as Elliott just missed getting collected by Earnhardt's spinning Chevy. Only Cale Yarborough stood between Bill and the million dollar prize. The two were battling nose to tail, thrilling the crowd, when a huge cloud of white smoke belched from the Hardees Thunderbird Yarborough was driving, bringing out the caution. Elliott managed to navigate through the smoke and assume the lead to the tumultuous cheers from the crowd. Cale's day was not over, however. What looked like a blown engine was actually a rupture in the power steering system that had sprayed fluid on the exhaust headers. The power steering system was quickly disconnected and Cale charged out of the pits to reengage Elliott in battle. Cale was a little bantamweight of a man, and wrestling that car minus power steering had to be a handful, but he was also the sort who ran every race like there was a million dollars at stake. He gave Bill all he could handle, but Elliott hung on to win by six tenths of a second. Awesome Bill had become Million Dollar Bill, and until this year, the only winner of the Winston Million.
AFTERMATH. In 1985 Bill Elliott won 11 races, breaking David Pearson's record for Superspeedway wins that had been thought to be untouchable. He also won the Winston Million that day in September. One prize escaped him, however. Darrell Waltrip won the Winston Cup Championship by a comfortable margin despite only having won three races. Darrell's championship, his third, was not won in the limelight of the big tracks, but forged in the furnaces of heat of battle on the toughest short tracks on the circuit, where he excelled and Bill Elliott struggled. It would be 1988 before Bill Elliott won his elusive Winston Cup Championship.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.