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On Jan. 2, during a test for last Sunday's Daytona 500, Bill Elliott whipped his brand new Ford Thunder-bird around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway at 202.2 mph, which was faster than Cale Yarborough's 1984 qualifying record there. Asked to describe that dazzling practice session Elliott said, "Well, we went down there and rode around and came home."
On Feb. 9, he was back at Daytona. This time he went 205.114 mph, to earn the pole for the 27th 500; it was the fastest lap in the history of stock-car racing. 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 racing. "We tried to do all our homework, and I guess it showed," was all he said.
On Sunday, Elliott did what the other drivers had by now resigned themselves to as racing fate: He turned the Daytona 500 into his own Thunderbird cakewalk. And he did it ever so stylishly. 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 on the track 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) who's known as Huckleberry around the NASCAR circuit for his Finn-like ways, hit the Big D in a way the place has rarely seen. Maybe never. Only Fireball Roberts (1962) and Yarborough (1984) have ever so completely ruled Speed Weeks by qualifying fastest and then winning both a 125-miler and the 500. Only Buddy Baker has ever won the 500 faster—a 177.602 average speed in 1980, 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. Said Ricky Rudd, who finished fifth in another Thunderbird, "If those boys had a Rambler, they could probably make it run like that."
Those boys are George, 60, and his trio of redheaded sons—Ernie, 37; Dan, 34; and Bill, 29. Move over, Pettys, your days of familial dominance are over. Watch out, Wood Brothers, you may be done for, too. The Elliotts have moved in. What's more, they're a welcome addition to the community—Bill was voted NASCAR's most popular driver after winning three races and finishing 23 races in the top 10 last year. There has already been a Bill Elliott Day back in Dawsonville.
Sunday's win was a victory for every nose that has ever rubbed a grindstone. And for small towns, for backyards and close-knit families—not to mention Fords. The team began building its super 'Bird as soon as the '84 season ended back in November. They 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.
Bill began racing in 1974 at Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, Ga., and Ernie knew right away he wouldn't have to look any further than his kid brother for a driver, or for someone who would willingly work in the family speed shop—a converted schoolhouse—till midnight every night. Ernie now builds the engines, with brother Dan assisting him, while Bill describes himself as "general worker." But Bill sets up his own chassis. Those long legs seen sticking out from under car No. 9 in Daytona's garage area were Bill's. There's a moral to that part of the story: Drivers who do their own chassis have an edge on the ones with the clean fingernails.
"We think we have an advantage because we're not in the Charlotte huddle," says patriarch George, a Ford dealer, referring to the infestation of big-name stock car teams in the Charlotte, N.C. area. "That close to the others, you start worrying about what they're doing. I've been in this business since 1947, and the most trouble I've been in is when I've been worrying about what the other guys are doing."
Though the Elliotts have been racing Fords—and nothing but—for 11 years, they haven't been getting much technical and financial support from the factory. Most of that has gone to the Charlotte-based team of Yarborough and Waddell Wilson, crew chief and engine builder for five of the last six Daytona pole winners. So the Elliotts have had little choice but to go about their own business; Ernie develops the engines on the dyno and, with no wind tunnel, they guesstimate what the aerodynamics should be. Wouldn't you know, at Daytona the Wilson/Yarborough factory Ford had engine problems all through practice, and as Bill sailed around trouble-free, the Elliotts' lips were sealed. They had a better idea, and it will stay theirs alone for the time being.