Smack dab in the middle of Thunder Road sits the old courthouse of Dawsonville, Ga., pop. 347. It occupies the center of a traffic roundabout on State Road 53, a two-lane blacktop skimming the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A sea of moonshine passed through that town square on its way down to Atlanta in days past; a dribble still does.
If you're whistling along on Thunder Road, you're likely to miss Melling Racing. It's about five miles out of town on Route 183, narrower even than State Road 53 and snaking into the Chattahoochee National Forest. At the outside edge of a sweeping turn, your eye might be caught by some junk cars gathered around a bunch of ramshackle chicken coops. On the inside of that turn, tucked down a tiny hollow, is the shop. It consists of a cinder-block building painted a pale aqua and not much bigger than the splashy 18-wheeler parked in front. There's an aluminum-sided extension stuck on one side of the building; a house trailer completes the compound. Taped to the two doors of Melling Racing's headquarters is a cardboard DO NOT ENTER sign. It's signed ERNIE. What goes on behind those doors is secret, and what comes out is a sleek red-white-and-gold Thunderbird. It's signed "The Elliotts," and it's the fastest stock car in history. So far, no one else knows why.
The Elliotts of Dawsonville are silver-haired George, 61, and his three redheaded sons: Ernie, 37, the crew chief and engine builder; Dan, 34, Ernie's assistant and the invisible one; and Bill, 29, the driver and chassis man. Counting wives, kids and "Mama" Audie Reece, 87, Bill's maternal grandmother, who was born five miles down the road, there are 12 members of the Elliott clan living in four brick houses alongside Route 183.
Young Bill started this NASCAR season as if he'd been shot out of a cannon. He set a track record of 205.114 mph in qualifying for the Daytona 500 in February and won the race by a mile—well, actually it was a bit less than a mile, but not much. In Grand National racing, where a car-length lead is considered a comfortable advantage, Elliott had held a mid-race margin that was astounding. Bill crashed on Feb. 24 at the Richmond 400, a short-track race, and then wrecked once more and cracked the fibula of his left leg during the 500-mile race at Rockingham, N.C. the following week. But two weeks later he won again, a 500-miler at Atlanta Raceway, sort of his "home" track. In May he set a stock-car record of 209.398 mph in qualifying for the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala. and won that super speedway race after falling behind by two laps because of an oil leak—earning back ground mostly under the green flag, not having it handed to him by a series of yellow caution flags. It was the fastest 500-mile race in history, with Elliott averaging 186.288 mph—11 mph faster than Buddy Baker's mark set in 1980 at the Daytona 500. In 15 races this year Bill has won seven, earned seven pole positions and set five qualifying or race-speed records. Halfway through the season he leads the point standings for the NASCAR championship by 2,306 to 2,205 over two-time champion Darrell Waltrip.
If he wins the Southern 500 on Sept. 1 at Darlington, S.C., the track they call The Lady in Black, he'll take the pot: a $1 million bonus staked by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco people for winning any three of NASCAR's four major races—Daytona, Winston, Darlington and the World 600 at Charlotte. Elliott had his first shot at the million at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend, but things just sort of fell apart under all of the pressure.
Bill is 6'1", rangy, and he speaks with a soft drawl. You can find him in many magazines leaning happily against the fender of his hot rod T-Bird, the pair of them stretched colorfully across two-page Ford ads. NASCAR fans, who voted Bill their Most Popular Driver last year, call him Big Bill, Wild Bill, Dollar Bill and Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. Bobby Allison, among others, calls him Huckleberry, for obvious reasons. He and his wife, Martha, his sweetheart from Lumpkin High who also acts as his personal secretary-bookkeeper, and their 7-year-old daughter, Starr, who did star in Victory Circle at Daytona, live across the road from the shop in an apartment in Mama Reece's basement.
If there's a stock-car family dynasty to replace the crumbled one of the Pettys, it's the Elliotts. George got into sponsoring racing cars. Fords, always, in 1962. In 1969 he even became a Ford dealer after making a bundle in the chicken business (those old coops across from the shop are his) and then in building supplies (the shop's main building had originally garaged the first of George's 30 delivery trucks). George's Ford dealership has always had the nearby town of Dahlonega as a mailing address but has been located at various times in a former schoolhouse and, currently, a skating rink.
Eldest son Ernie, after getting a business degree from North Georgia College, ran a speed-equipment shop in what now has grown to be the racing shop. George had never had the desire to be a driver himself, and Ernie and Dan had each tried and weren't all that impressed. So Ernie stayed with the engines and Dan went off to North Georgia College, leaving the keys to the family Mustang short-track race car to Bill, who was 16 at the time.
For five years the family stayed mostly with the local short tracks. George broke his son into Grand National racing in 1976 by entering him in eight races, of which Bill finished two. In '77 George bought Roger Penske's race car when Penske shut down his NASCAR team after three years of trying and just one win to show for it. For the next five years the Elliotts stretched the equipment and squeezed the dollars. Their crew consisted of a few Dawsonville boys, and a couple of times their car was a Race Fan Special—a fan could get his name painted on the car for $100. The survival plan was to enter races in which, as George says, "the field was shy." Bill sure did learn how to conserve his car, and they cracked the Top 5 two times in 65 races over those six seasons.
Elliott Racing lost $100,000 in 1981, an impossible bite out of George's Ford dealership profits, and he was ready to quit. "In situations like that, you can only let your family suffer so much," says Ernie, whose third child was born that year.