Another Elliott brings Dawsonville siren to life
April 19, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live
The siren is a 12-volt model out of a former highway patrol car, but these days it sits atop a pole striped black and white like a checkered flag. And when it emits its ear-splitting howl, people in Dawsonville, Ga., know exactly what it means -- local son Chase Elliott has won another race.
For two consecutive Friday nights, the siren perched on the roof of the Dawsonville Pool Room has sounded its mighty shriek, and for two consecutive Friday nights the locals have streamed outside to honk car horns and celebrate as if it were midnight on New Year's Eve. Elliott's back-to-back victories in the Nationwide Series have not only cemented the 18-year-old as a rising star, they've also helped to revive a unique tradition in his hometown. When an Elliott wins, the siren above the Pool Room blows. It was that way during Bill's glory days, and it's that way again now with his son Chase.
"It's been so good for this community," said Gordon Pirkle, the Pool Room's longtime owner and a family friend of the Elliotts. "Everybody's spirits are up. It's back like it was in the mid-80s."
Everyone knew about Dawsonville in the 1980s, when Bill Elliott -- his nickname, "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville," said it all -- put this town on the map. Back then the siren atop the Pool Room rang out with regularity, to the point where Pirkle affixed it to the roof. That siren, which came from a volunteer fire department, is still up there, and the Pool Room's 77-year-old owner jokes that he hopes to one day sound it one more time.
(Photos courtesy of Michael Garrett)
Barring an unforeseen comeback by the 1988 NASCAR champion, that appears unlikely -- Bill hasn’t raced at the sport's top level in two years, and his siren has remained quiet since his last victory, in 2003 at Rockingham, N.C. So for the better part of a decade the sirens fell silent, and despite its legacy Dawsonville became a sleepy north Georgia town halfway between Atlanta and the Tennessee line. And then Bill and Cindy Elliott moved back because their son Chase wanted to pursue racing, and then everything started to change.
Or perhaps more accurately, everything started to return to the way it used to be. Back in 1983, Pirkle had a shop next to the Pool Room that housed the machines for the coin-operated amusement business he's also involved in. "The boys fixed up a back room there so they could watch the races," Pirkle remembered, and when a caution flew late in the 1983 season finale at Riverside International Raceway, the locals realized their man Elliott was about to win in NASCAR for the first time. "We had to do something," Pirkle said, and there happened to be this old fire station siren sitting on the floor.
He found an extension cord, plugged it in, took the siren outside and let it roar, beginning a tradition in the process. "Of course, the deputy sheriff pulled up wanting to know what was going on," Pirkle remembered, "and we told him Bill Elliott won the race."
The enthusiasm was understandable. Pirkle had been a friend of Elliott's father George, and all the Elliott boys were regulars in the Pool Room when they weren't working at the race shop eight miles away. "They just seem like family to me," Pirkle said. By 1984, when Bill won three times, Pirkle had the siren atop the cab of a pickup truck. By 1985, when Elliott won 11 times, it had a permanent position on the roof. There was no cable television in Dawsonville then, and the Pool Room was one of the few places in town with a satellite dish. Pirkle -- who originally didn't even open the joint on Sundays -- would pack them in, putting out folding chairs so everyone could crowd around a 21-inch television.
Now, everyone watches Chase race on a 24-foot projection TV set up down the street in city hall, the same building that houses the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. But the siren still screams from atop the Pool Room, though the model used to celebrate Chase's victories is louder than the one which honored his father. People on the outskirts of town can hear it from their back porch. "It's as loud as our emergency tornado warning," said Michael Garrett, Pirkle's grandson, who manages the Pool Room's social media accounts. "It's no little siren."
At 20, Garrett is too young to remember Bill Elliott's heyday, although he does remember hearing the siren call out for the final few victories of the driver's career. The success of Chase Elliott, though, has allowed Garrett and others of his generation to experience the tradition all over again. Although Pirkle would sound the siren for big victories in Chase's late model days -- like last year's Snowball Derby, which the younger Elliott later had taken away due to an inspection violation -- nothing has galvanized Dawsonville quite like his Nationwide triumphs of the past few weeks.
"A bunch of people that didn't know they used to do it for Bill, like people who have recently moved in, are realizing it's for Chase now," Garrett said. "I heard it back in early 2000s when Bill won his last race. But I really don't remember it as much as I know now that Chase is winning, and Papa is blowing the siren again. A younger generation like me, we can fall in love with that tradition now because of Chase. We weren't able to do it back in Bill's day. It's a really neat thing."
And it continues a long NASCAR tradition in Dawsonville, where the Pool Room has been a fixture for over 50 years. Bill still pops in a few times a week to eat lunch, when the specials are comfort food staples like chicken and dressing or hamburger steak. Pirkle's daughter Hayley is a former Miss Atlanta Journal 500 who appeared in Victory Lane on the day when Elliott clinched his championship in Atlanta in 1988. And Chase even worked at the Pool Room one summer when at 13, his parents thought their son should experience what it was like to hold down a job.
Pirkle chuckles when he tells the story. Chase was already racing at the time, and concerned about how he'd fit a part-time job into his schedule, so Pirkle agreed to let him work the early shift and then leave to go work on his race car with the race team employees who would come in every day for lunch. Pirkle had hired plenty of kids involved in sports, and had always found them to be industrious and responsible employees, but he had one rule -- anyone who had to leave early had to make sure all the dishes were washed first. Chase would be no different.
"About a week or so went by, and my help was just really loving that kid," Pirkle said. "Every little break he'd get, he'd run back there to that sink and get the dishes washed up. He didn't want to be late getting to that shop, is what it was. I don’t think the rest of my staff ever washed any dishes on the breakfast shift. He kept them washed up. I can't believe what a level head that boy's got on him, and how polite he is. He's just a good kid."
All of which makes Pirkle quite happy to sound the siren for one of his former dishwashers, as he's done after Chase claimed back-to-back victories at Texas and Darlington. "Everybody in Dawsonville loves Chase, and loves the Elliotts," Garrett said. "We get so excited. Right as he's crossing the finish line they're saying, 'Sound it! Sound it!' We don’t even have time to hook anything up or anything. People get so excited."
And with it, Dawsonville comes to life, much like it did in the 1980s when another Elliott was winning races in NASCAR. Chase's victories clearly resonate with those at the Pool Room, where the sign out front features images of checkered flags, and is topped by a row of cartoon race cars. But people in Dawsonville are equally as proud of the fact that the younger Elliott hasn’t forgotten where he came from -- as he showed Wednesday, when he signed autographs for two hours at city hall.
"He's been raised up in those cars all his life," Pirkle said. "He's known nothing but racing, from the time he was little and Bill and Cindy took him to all the races, and then he's worked in the shop up there. And I can tell, he genuinely loves this. I used to kid Bill and them, 'I guess you picked the wrong one up at the hospital, he's so polite.' But then he started racing. I know he's his boy."