More and more, the job description for a race car driver involves pleasing the sponsor as much as it does driving. Winning used to be everything. Now it helps to make appearances, too.
Bill Elliott made official Thursday what everyone in NASCAR has known for several months--he will be driving on the Winston Cup circuit this year for Junior Johnson's Budweiser team. In talking about the change from a family-run team in Dawsonville, Ga., to a corporate team based in Wilkes County, N.C., Elliott gave an insight into how much the sport of motor racing is changing.
"This will be a new role for me," Elliott said. "In the past, I have taken care of the day-to-day operation of the race team in the shop, a hands-on approach to everything. Now Junior will be taking care of that, which frees me up to take care of sponsors and drive on Sundays."
Elliott's racing association with his family will remain, however, in the form of a Busch Grand National team that will race on Saturdays. He will drive Fords in both series.
"With Budweiser sponsoring both cars, it will make for a strong relationship on race weekends," he said. "The Grand National program will keep me close to the family and to Harry Melling (his former car owner), and it will also give Junior and me a chance to learn more about the track on Saturday, and how the cars run. That can help us with the Sunday car."
Johnson, who has not had a Winston Cup champion since Darrell Waltrip in 1985, said he had been after Elliott to drive for six or seven years.
"We'd come pretty close to getting together, but he always wanted to stick with his family," Johnson said. "I always felt he'd have been a lot better if he'd come with me. It's hard to take a team and be both driver and mechanic and do all of the stuff that he tried to do. He'd be successful now and then, win a race--but every week, no way.
"There ain't enough hours in the day for him to do it. If he'd devote his time to driving and stuff, he'd be a much more effective driver."
Johnson and Elliott signed a three-year contract, matching the number of years that Budweiser extended its pact with Johnson.
"Last year, when I heard Coors wasn't going to renew Bill's contract, and I knew Geoff (Bodine) was leaving my team, I contacted Bill and went after him," Johnson said.
Elliott became known as "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" in 1985 when he won the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., and Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C., to become the first and only winner of the Winston Million. He lost the championship to Waltrip that season but was named driver of the year. In 1988, Elliott won the championship and his second driver-of-the-year title.
Since then, however, Elliott has had lean years on the track that have been magnified by a series of personal problems. Shortly after going through a divorce from his high school sweetheart, three people close to him died. A crew member was killed in a pit-row accident late in 1990, and last June, his mother and grandmother died within a week.
Last year, Elliott won only one race, the Pepsi 400 at Daytona Beach, but for the sixth time was voted NASCAR's most popular driver.
"Getting (the most-popular-driver award) this year was special because of everything that happened. It's always a special feeling when I go other places in the country besides Winston Cup races and find I've got a lot of friends who follow my racing."
Johnson's drivers have won six championships--three with Waltrip and three with Cale Yarborough--but last year he had only one victory from two drivers--Geoff Bodine and Sterling Marlin. Bodine won the Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte.
Marlin will return as a teammate of Elliott's. It will be the first time Elliott has been with a two-car team.
"From all I've heard, having two cars is better than one," Elliott said. "This way, things we find out on the No. 11 car (Elliott's) can be used on the No. 22 (Marlin's) and vice versa. It has to help all the way around."
Motor Racing Notes
ALL-AMERICA--The 22nd annual American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters Assn. awards banquet Saturday night at the Burbank Hilton Convention Center will honor 12 members of the 1991 All-America racing team. The team: Michael Andretti, Rick Mears, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Geoff Brabham, Scott Sharp, Darrell Alderman, Joe Amato, Jeff Gordon, Steve Kinser, Pat Austin and Roger Mears. Gant will be presented with the Jerry Titus Memorial Award given to the driver who receives the most votes in balloting among association members.
MOTORCYCLES--The 1992 U.S. Grand Prix of road racing at Laguna Seca has been canceled because of increased financial demands by the series organizers. Instead of a world championship event, Laguna Seca will hold a national Superbike series race on the same April 24-26 dates. Laguna Seca was the site of Superbike races from 1976 to '88, when it was dropped to make way for the world championship race. Among the winners have been Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey, all of whom later won world championships.
OFF-ROAD--Former motocross champion Rick Johnson will drive a Chevrolet truck as a teammate of Danny Thompson in the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Gran Prix. Opening race is Jan. 18 at Anaheim Stadium, but Johnson's truck may not be ready until the Feb. 8 event at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. . . . The New Years 200 will open the seven-race 1992 La Rana Desert Racing Promotions series this weekend near Barstow.
DRAG RACING--Kim LaHaie, who was crew chief for Dick LaHaie's top fuel dragster when her father won the 1987 National Hot Rod Assn.'s Winston world championship, will move into the driver's seat this year. Kim, who tested briefly the past two seasons, will drive a new Al Swindahl-built top fueler for Larry Frazier. The season will open Jan. 31-Feb. 2 with the Winternationals at the Pomona Fairplex. . . . The U.S. Hot Rod Assn. will hold its ninth annual Ford Grand Slam of Motorsports Saturday night at Anaheim Stadium. Featured will be Dana Stephens, 20, who will attempt to pull a 33-ton weight transfer sled the length of the track in her two-wheel-drive truck.