From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 25, 1985
ON JAN. 2, DURING A TEST SESSION, BILL ELLIOTT WHIPPED HIS Ford Thunderbird around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at 202.2 mph, which was faster than Cale Yarborough's 1984 qualifying record there. On Feb. 9 Elliott was back at Daytona, and this time he went 205.114 mph, to earn the pole for the 27th 500; it was the fastest lap in stock car history. Five days later Elliott won his 125-mile qualifying race by two miles—a gap about as wide as the Atlantic in the fender-to-fender arena of NASCAR.
Then Elliott did what the other drivers had by that point resigned themselves to as racing fate: He turned the Daytona 500 into his own Thunderbird cakewalk.
Yarborough, also driving a T-Bird as he went for his third straight Daytona win, chased or paced Elliott for 62 laps, and Neil Bonnett, driving a Chevy, gave him a gutsy run until the final half-dozen laps. But there wasn't a car that could match Elliott's 'Bird through the corners. Said Bonnett, "We could all run down the straightaways real fast, but the rest of us had to back off for the turns. Elliott just held his foot down and kept going."
"Here's like anyplace else," said the winner. "You got to have a car that can handle."
That bit of understatement may soon become classic. Elliott, a lanky, red-haired Georgia boy from near little ol' Dawsonville (pop. 342) hit the Big D in a way the place has rarely been hit. Maybe never. Only Fireball Roberts (1962) and Yarborough ('84) have ever so completely ruled Speedweeks by qualifying fastest and then winning both a 125-miler and the 500. Only Buddy Baker has won the 500 faster—a 177.602 average speed in '80, while Elliott averaged 172.265. But it wasn't just the doing of one red-haired Elliott; three of them took on the combined might of NASCAR, and a silver-haired Elliott was on hand for good measure.
Those Elliotts are George, 60, and his trio of redheaded sons: Ernie, 37; Dan, 34; and Bill, 29. Theirs was a victory for every nose that has ever rubbed a grindstone. And for small towns, for backyards and for close-knit families—not to mention Fords. The team began building its super 'Bird as soon as the '84 season ended back in November. The Elliotts worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, including Christmas, in the off months. When they fired up their creation on Jan. 2, they had a head start that ultimately led to the checkered flag in NASCAR's richest race, a $185,500 first-place payoff out of a NASCAR-record $1.28 million total purse.
This was Elliott's fifth Grand National victory, but it had taken him 116 races to get his first, at Riverside, Calif., in 1983, and he still isn't entirely used to the celebrity. With a sunburned face to match his hair and with his seven-year-old daughter, Starr, hanging on him and hugging him, Elliott offered the final understatement for the day. Asked where the lipstick on his cheek had come from, he rubbed it and replied, "I think it might be growing on me."