In Dawsonville, Millionaire Bill Is Just Another One of the Good Ol’ Elliott Boys : Racing’s a Family Business
‘Winning the million dollars is important to me because of what it will mean to the sport. But the money itself isn’t that important. When I first got started, having $100 extra to spend was something wonderful. I still have a hard time trying to understand what a million dollars is. My only plans are to put it back into the team.'--BILL ELLIOTT
‘It’s funny, when we started racing back in ’76, we thought we knew just about everything there was to know about racing, but it wasn’t long before we knew we didn’t know anything. We’re still in a learning process. Maybe it didn’t look like it last season, but each race we went to we expected to learn something, and we did.'--ERNIE ELLIOTT
When you’re talkin’ Dawsonville, you’re talkin’ rural. It’s about 60 miles north of Atlanta, close to the Tennessee line, but it’s one of those quaint little hamlets on the backroads of America that no one ever hears about until someone famous emerges. It’s like Plains was before Jimmy Carter rose from his peanut farm to become president.
There’s no traffic light in Dawsonville, only a stop sign on state highway 53 to slow traffic between Dahlonga and the Dawson County courthouse.
There’s not much to see, only an old church, a couple of restaurants, a grocery store, some beer joints and convenience stores and a used car lot. If you want a new car, you have to go to Dahlonga to George Elliott’s dealership.
Dawsonville’s official population is listed as 347, and one of the 347 is Bill Elliott, a raw-boned red-haired man the homefolks call Millionaire Bill.
On a summer Sunday in Darlington, S.C., last year, Elliott won the Southern 500 to earn a $1-million bonus from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Elliott had won three of NASCAR’s Big Four races, at Daytona, Talladega and Darlington, to win the richest bonus in racing history. This, added to purse money from 11 wins and 11 pole positions, plus the Driver of the Year and NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver awards, increased his 1985 earnings to a staggering $2,383,187.
“It’s a family deal,” Elliott insists. “It belongs to the whole family, not just me.”
Ask anyone around here about the Elliotts. They’ll tell you that Bill drives the car and sets up the chassis, brother Ernie does the engine work with brother Dan’s help, father George runs the show, wife Martha keeps the books, and grandma Audie, she’s 88, looks after Starr, Bill and Martha’s 9-year-old daughter who is Audie’s great-granddaughter.
Bill and Martha and Starr--so named because she was born on Christmas Day--live in the basement of Audie Reece’s place, right across the street from the tin-roofed garage where the Elliotts do all their work on the No. 9 Ford Thunderbirds that helped Bill win his two-million bucks.
Now that they’ve won all that money--give or take a few hundred thousand that belongs to car owner Harry Melling--won’t Bill and Martha build a home of their own?
“Naw, I don’t think so,” Bill drawled. “Why should we? We had a house once and sold it so we moved in across the street from the shop. Sure saves a lot of time and we got someone to watch over Starr.”
Elliott’s biggest extravagance was to buy a satellite dish so his grandmother could watch all the Winston Cup races on Sundays.
“Winning the million dollars is important to me because of what it will mean to the sport,” the 30-year-old Elliott said. “But the money itself isn’t that important. When I first got started, having $100 extra to spend was something wonderful. I still have a hard time trying to understand what a million dollars is. My only plans are to put it back into the team.”
Another thing money won’t do is make Bill give up doing his own chassis work.
“I like working on the car so much I’d never give it up. I got to thinking, after I won that million at Darlington and I got back to the shop, if I had six million I’d still work on the car.”
They’re just plain folks, the Elliotts, but they’ve made Dawsonville such a busy tourist stop for stock car fans that they may need a stoplight one of these days.
The Elliotts don’t bother much about the highway traffic, though, because they come and go in one of Bill or Ernie’s single-engine Cessnas from their private landing strip cut from the woods out behind the garage.
Once in a while the tourists and home folks are entertained by a small aerobatic Citabria twisting and turning and doing roll-overs in the sky above Dawsonville.
“It’s just Bill,” his father explained. “It’s his way of unwinding. When he first started doing it about seven or eight years ago, we gave him the dickens real good, but it didn’t make no difference. He did it anyway.”
The strip also has its practical use.
“It’s a 20-minute ride from the house to the airport,” Bill said. “By using my own strip, that’s 40 minutes I can cut off my travel time.”
Before the Elliotts had the strip paved, it didn’t have any lights.
“When Ernie or I were flying in at night, we’d phone ahead and have a friend come out to the strip and turn on his headlights. It was real interesting, a lone spot of light in total darkness.”
If you’re lucky, you might see one of the Elliotts in the air, but fans and friends won’t get to see Ernie’s engine room. No one gets in there, no one but Ernie and Dan and George. Not even folks from the Ford Motor Co., who furnish the Elliotts with cars and equipment.
“Ernie’s so tight about his room that even I don’t go in there,” Bill said with a smile.
A sign on the door reads: “STAY OUT by Order of Ernie Elliott.”
Ernie doesn’t want anyone snooping around because the room is full of 358-cubic inch Ford Cleveland engines in all stages of development.
“Last year we spent $500,000 in our engine research and development,” Ernie said. “At any given moment we might have as many as 15 different engines we’re working on. We’re constantly changing and searching for improvement.”
The Elliotts have been racing since Bill was a baby, but until he came along it was mostly done on the narrow roads that wind through the hilly approaches to the Blue Ridge Mountains or drag racing up and down in front of the courthouse.
George had a Ford agency in Dahlonga and when he’d get too many used cars, he’d haul them home and park them back behind the family house. Before Ernie was old enough to get a driver’ license, he was hopping them up and racing other young Georgia crackers.
“If Ernie got beat, he’d take his Ford home and work on it until he’d get it so no one could beat him,” George Elliott recalled proudly as he ate lunch at New York’s 21 Club last December where Bill was being honored as Driver of the Year.
“I’d always wanted to be a race driver myself,” George said. “And I always took the boys to the races when they were small. Ernie always seemed to get more kick out of fixing up cars than racing them. I always thought Dan might be a racer, but he went off to college.
“Then Bill came along and it was apparent to us by the time he was 13 and racing around in the pasture that he was going to be the family race driver. This has all become a dream come true. As a matter of fact, I never even dreamed of anything like this, being here in New York with Bill getting all this acclaim. And me and Ernie and Dan and our wives being here, too. I’d always hoped we could get into something where the boys and I would work together, but this is just fantastic.”
Bill was still a teen-ager when he drove his first professional race at Woodstock, Ga., and won it. He was only 20 when the Elliotts hauled their family Ford to Rockingham, N.C., for his first Grand National race on Feb. 29, 1976. He qualified 34th, finished 33rd and won $640.
In eight races that season the team won $11,635, far short of paying the bills.
“We kept getting better, but we never could keep our heads above water,” George recalled. “We were about to give it up in 1980 when we got a call to drive in a team race at Charlotte with Benny Parsons.”
Harry Melling, a tool company owner from Jackson, Mich., was Parsons’ team sponsor. He remembers how it happened:
“Benny needed a teammate so I asked him who to get. He said, ‘Get the kid, he’s gonna be super.’ We gave Bill $1,500 to put our name on his car.”
The next week the Elliotts were in Atlanta for a race and the car still had Melling’s name on its sides.
“We didn’t ask him for any money or anything,” George said. “The truth is that his name was still on the car because we didn’t have time to paint it out. But Harry liked that and when Benny (Parsons) left for another team, Harry said he’d like to sponsor our car for the next year.
“He gave us the money up front and we blew it all on a new car. We struggled and managed to make all the races we’d agreed to run, but we were at the end of our rope again when the season ended. We’d gone as far as we could on the family’s resources. When Harry suggested buying our whole operation, I hated to let go of it, but I knew if I held on I’d only be standing in the boys’ way, so I sold it.”
Elliott did not win his first Grand National race until Nov. 20, 1983. It came on the road course at Riverside, which prompted Bill say, “Riverside’s turns and corners weren’t no bother at all after running through the hills around Dawsonville.”
He won three races in 1984, including his first superspeedway win at Charlotte, but the racing world was not prepared for what the Elliotts would bring to the races in 1985.
“It’s funny, when we started racing back in ’76, we thought we knew just about everything there was to know about racing, but it wasn’t long before we knew we didn’t know anything,” Ernie Elliott said. “We’re still in a learning process. Maybe it didn’t look like it last season, but each race we went to we expected to learn something, and we did.”
The Elliotts did their homework in the Lockheed wind tunnel at Marietta, Ga., a year ago and they went home with the results and created a Ford T-Bird that cut through the air like no other stock car before it.
Once Elliott arrived in Daytona and took some practice laps last February, he was the driver to beat. And no one came close. He won the pole with a record 205.114 m.p.h. lap, won his 125-mile qualifier by nearly half a lap and led 136 of the 200 laps in winning the 500.
He won by such wide margins that there were whispers around the garages that the Elliotts must be cheating.
“The only cheating we did was to work harder than any other team,” Ernie said with a hint of bitterness.
Richard Petty, quite a dominant driver in his day and a seven-time Daytona winner, admonished the Elliotts: “When you’ve found some secret that makes you that much faster than everyone else, you shouldn’t rub it in. You gotta know when to take it easy and not make it look so easy. NASCAR don’t like cats that show up all them other cats.”
Sure enough, before the season was well under way, NASCAR came out with a rule designed to slow the Thunderbird down. It raised the profile of the Ford to create more wind resistance and reduced the profile of the opposition for the opposite effect. It didn’t work.
Elliott slowed himself down by crashing in successive races at Richmond, Va., and Rockingham, N.C.
In the Carolina 500 at Rockingham, when Bill’s Ford smacked the wall, the impact broke his left leg. He would not let doctors put a cast on the leg because if he did, he couldn’t drive.
The next race was two weeks later in Atlanta. Elliott not only drove with the broken leg, but he did not call on a relief driver he had on standby despite suffering painful blisters on his ankle and heel because of the leg.
But he won the race.
“The leg hurt every time I moved it so when I found a comfortable position, I made sure it didn’t move,” Elliott explained. “Only trouble was, when the heat came up through the floorboard it blistered me. I didn’t want to stop because Atlanta’s our home track and a lot of folks from Dawson County were there watching.”
When Elliott won the Winston 500 at Talladega in May, it put him one win away from the $1-million bonus. He had two chances to win it, first in the World 600 at Charlotte and then in the Southern 500 at Darlington.
He won the pole at Charlotte but brake problems kept the Ford in the pits so long that it finished only 18th. The media hype also had taken its toll on the shy country boy from northern Georgia.
“I wasn’t ready for all the attention I got at Charlotte. I tried to do everything people wanted of me and it got so I was neglecting the car. You know, I do all the chassis work myself and I was doing interviews and attending luncheons and stuff and the car was just sitting there.”
It was a hard lesson, but Elliott learned it. Before Darlington, he had his sponsor, Coors, announce that interviews would be limited to one press conference a day and that the Elliott garage--which had been so crowded at Charlotte that the crew couldn’t do any work--would be off limits.
“Once I sat down after Charlotte and understood what had been going on and what it was doing to the team, I knew I had to do it differently at Darlington. I felt like it was tougher on me than other drivers (on other teams) because every intrusion on my time was an intrusion on the chassis work. Before Charlotte, I had no idea what it was like to be chased around that way. Now I know. Just knowing will help me understand how to handle it in the future.”
Darlington, the Lady in Black, was not easy for Elliott.
He sat on the pole but had two close calls before finishing two seconds ahead of Cale Yarborough in another Ford.
First, Dale Earnhardt’s Chevrolet spun in front of Elliott in the second turn, causing Elliott to dive underneath. He missed the spinning Earnhardt by inches. The other occured when Yarborough lost his power steering and a giant plume of smoke escaped from his car and blanketed Elliott’s windshield. Temporarily blinded, he dropped down on the apron in the fourth turn to avoid hitting what he couldn’t see.
“God really smiled on us at Darlington,” he said. “We needed a lot of luck to win the Winston Million and we got it.”
After the million was won, Darlington officials gave Elliott a ride around the track in a convertible. A standing-room only crowd of 68,000 gave him a thunderous ovation.
“I am not a very emotional person and I try to keep my emotions under control,” he said. “But I got very emotional during that ride. I guess that’s the day I really realized just how many fans I have. It was something I will remember the rest of my life.”
Elliott, the newest hero of the Good Ol’ Boys crowd who grew up running bootleg whiskey on weekdays and racing each other on Sundays, has been voted most popular driver the past two years. Last year he got 33,961 votes out of more than 104,000 to win by a wide margin.
The folks in Dawsonville celebrated, too. The day after he won at Darlington, Bill was back in the garage, working on the car with Ernie, Dan and George.
“We were getting it ready for Richmond, just like always, when some townspeople organized a little parade around the town square. They sent a Georgia state patrolman to come and get us to ride in it. Soon as it was over, we went right back to work.”
After Darlington, Bill won one more superspeedway race, making it a record 11 for the season. The 11th win, at Atlanta in the next to last race, broke David Pearson’s record for superspeedway wins in a single season. The race had special significance to Elliott.
Pearson had been his racing idol since a day in Atlanta, in 1973, when a skinny teen-ager watched from the stands as Pearson won one of his 10 superspeedway races.
“I always liked the way Pearson drove, keeping his car up close until the end when he ran real hard to win,” Elliott said. “I thought how great it would be to be out there with those guys. I never dreamed then that it would happen. That’s why beating Pearson’s record at Atlanta meant so much to me.”
The one thing that eluded the Elliotts was the national championship. He led Darrell Waltrip by 206 points after Darlington, but the lead frittered away as one problem after another plagued the team.
In the first four races after winning the million, Elliott did not finish better than 12th and Waltrip, with a win and two seconds, overtook him. The championship was decided in the final race at Riverside where Elliott lasted only a couple of laps before an $8 shift lever broke, leaving him with no third or fourth gear.
Waltrip finished fifth to end the year 20 points ahead of Elliott and win his third championship in Junior Johnson’s No. 11 Chevrolet.
“We won the championship but everything we did was overshadowed by what he would do,” Waltrip said. “I don’t want to tear his year down and try to make mine better than his but the Elliotts seemed to have a real letdown after Darlington.
“They won a million bucks there, but their season sort of ended right then. They had built and planned for that and when they finally won it, they didn’t seem to realize that there were 10 more races (8 actually) to run. They let their guard down and fell out of three or four races and here we come like Grant took Richmond.”
None of the Elliotts tried to mask their disappointment at losing the championship, but they insisted they wouldn’t trade for it.
“No way I would swap years with Waltrip,” Ernie said.
“It was a heck of a year,” Bill said. “Eleven wins, 11 poles and then No. 11 wins the championship. That was one too many elevens. It’s kind of a letdown not to win, but we’re improving. We were third in ’83 and ’84 and second in ’85. Now it’s going to be our turn to be first.”
The one thing Elliott doesn’t like about NASCAR’s 30-race season is all the traveling.
“The schedule just don’t make a lot of sense to me, the way we have to go back and forth across the country. One week we’re in Delaware, then it’s back to Charlotte, then the next week clear across the country to California. The next week we’re in Pennsylvania, and then we go back to Michigan and then down to Daytona. Now all that zig-zagging don’t make any sense at all.”
All the Elliotts have been asked a thousand times what it was that gave their Ford the edge on the superspeedways. Bill tried to explain it:
“It’s the combinations. No one thing, just the right combination of a lot of things. You’ve got to get the right driver, crew chief and engine builder and then you’ve got to figure out what the right combination is going to be. It changes from year to year.
“When we’re through at Daytona this year, someone else may have the right combination. It’s tough to get the right one, and it’s tougher yet to keep it.
“Money won’t buy wins. You’ve got to have good people who work together. Then you have to find the right combinations. That takes work, lots of it. You can be the best driver in the world, but unless you’ve worked hard you won’t win.”
George Elliott, a distinguished looking man who could pass for the town banker, explains it this way: “It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. I would say it is a total combination working together as a team for a common goal.”
In Dawsonville, that means family.
“There are pluses and minuses in our family input, but the pluses far outweigh the minuses,” Bill said. “For one thing, we have everyone there when we need them. No one lives more than five minutes from the shop. That’s a plus.
“When something goes wrong, we don’t blame anyone. We find out what it is, work around it, fix it, and go on. It’s too easy to blame someone when something goes bad. Especially if they aren’t there. That’s the best thing about our family input. We’re close in everything we do.
“Some’s family, some’s not, in our shop, but we all tend to treat each other like family.”
The season starts Sunday with the Daytona 500 and Elliott has set some goals for himself.
“The first thing is to win at Daytona. That’s the next race, and the next race is always the most important race there is.
“Second, I want the team to be consistent this year. If you’re always there (close to the front), you’ll win your share.
“And third, I want to be prepared. If we’re prepared, we can’t ask for anything more. Racing luck has a way of favoring the team that is prepared.
“We’ve got a lot to prove this week. In racing, you’re only as good as your last race. I think I was 31st (at Riverside) my last time out.”