Elliott's path from 'runny-nosed kid' to Hall of Famer
May 21, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There were times when it felt anything but awesome. Bill Elliott rocketed to stardom from humble beginnings that didn't prepare him for it, so when the era of Million Dollar Bill arrived in full force, no one was less comfortable than the driver at the center of it all. He remembers one time at Darlington, walking to the truck to help his 12-member team change an engine. He was so swarmed on the way that by the time he finally got there, he had forgotten the whole reason for the trip.
"You had so many distractions, and so many people wanting so many things," Elliott remembered, "you couldn't focus on what you needed to do."
They were a family-operated race team out of the north Georgia foothills, a band of outsiders trying to break into NASCAR's top level. He was a painfully shy driver who did almost all of his talking behind the wheel. Together, they vaulted Elliott to quick and almost unexpected success in what is now the Sprint Cup Series, turning a virtual unknown from out-of-the-way Dawsonville, Georgia, into one of the most well-known auto racers in the world.
Wednesday brought the capper. After a career that netted 44 race victories, the 1988 premier-series championship and an aura of invincibility that earned him not one nickname but two, Elliott was a runaway selection for the 2015 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Awesome Bill dominated the voting like he dominated opponents in the 1980s, appearing on 87 percent of ballots -- the second-highest total since such records were released beginning with the Hall's second class, trailing only David Pearson's 94 percent in 2011. Elliott earned a nomination in his first year on the ballot, and in the first election after eligibility requirements were restructured.
"I'm just totally speechless about this whole thing," Elliott said. "I never imagined being in the Hall of Fame. I just never imagined in a million years that I'd ever end up here, especially starting out as a little red-headed, runny-nosed kid in Dawsonville, Georgia."
It was never really in doubt, especially since Elliott's name was the first of the five revealed for the 2015 class, which will be inducted on Jan. 30. Still, Elliott said he was "shocked" by the honor, and his son Chase could notice a difference about his father on the drive to Charlotte earlier in the day.
"Whether or not he shows his emotion or not, he's been excited about this for a while, just to have the opportunity to be here today," said Chase, a two-time race winner on the Nationwide Series this season with JR Motorsports. "It's hard to tell if he was nervous or what he was on the way up here today, but I definitely noticed something. Just cool to see him get excited about this. He doesn't get excited about much. This means a lot to him."
Perhaps Elliott's surprise stemmed from where he came from, and the struggles that all his race victories so easily eclipsed. Breaking through with a family-run team from north Georgia, the Elliott clan -- Bill, along with his father, George, and brothers Ernie and Dan -- were complete outsiders. "Totally," Bill agreed. "You were against the establishment, so to speak." The difficulties of those times made Wednesday's achievement mean even more.
"You put a lot of effort into things, you did a lot of things, you accomplished a lot of things, and you kind of did it your way. And I think that's what I'm most proud about," Elliott said. "We didn't come to Charlotte and buy our way into anything. We built it. Hard work and dedication, all in a little shop in Dawsonville, Georgia. That's where we put it all together, and I think that's what's more special about this than anything in the world."
It was never easy, really, not even after Elliott started to collect victories in bunches and the siren on the roof of the Dawsonville Pool Room -- which sounded its wail once again after the election results were announced Wednesday -- began to howl with regularity. The stardom came very quickly. Elliott won three times in his first full-time season, and 11 the next, and the driver found it hard to process it all. Be seen and not heard, his father had always told him. But that proved difficult after George Elliott sold his team to Harry Melling, and everyone suddenly wanted a piece of Awesome Bill.
"Especially for me early on, to get in front of a group of people and say two words was virtually impossible," Elliott said. Particularly given that he had started with such a small family-run organization, and then was surrounded by a team comprised of barely a dozen people even at the height of his success.
"It was tough. I was part of a group of 12 people. There were 12 of us in the shop, and I was a part of that group. You look at that and you say, how do you put everything in perspective and make it work? We worked the shop 24 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes. You were killing yourself to do what you did, and then you were asked to do other stuff, and you were pulled in so many different directions. I look back and actually think I handled it pretty well, from the standpoint of the responsibilities I had at the point in time that we did it."
Even today, he shakes his head in disbelief of it all, how this small group of outsiders helped him reach the Hall of Fame.
"What we did, and the amount of people we did it with -- man, it was totally incredible, guys," Elliott said. "It's beyond scale. … And that's the thing I don't think people understand about our whole deal."
Which is why Elliott saw Wednesday's election as not just an honor for himself, but his entire family. "There should be a list of names that under my name in the Hall of Fame, or above my name, however you want to put it. Because they're the ones who made it all possible," he said. And to some like NASCAR President Mike Helton, Elliott's selection was a reminder of a glorious era when the sport truly came into its own.
"Certainly, it's exciting I think for a lot of folks, with Chase's success already kind of regenerating that Dahlonega and Dawsonville group," said Helton, who is a Hall of Fame voter, and was working in Atlanta at the time when the elder Elliott broke through. "This will be an additional enthusiastic moment for all of them up there. It's good to be reminded of that era (where) we were able to grow the sport so much, and characters like Bill Elliott certainly played a role in that."
And he still does. Chase Elliott says he still sees cars around Dawsonville sporting front license plates adorned with his father's old car numbers, like 9 or 94.
"You sit back and think, that's just crazy that people still support him even today," Chase said. "Even with how much things change, they're still rolling around with a No. 9 license plate on their cars. That's really cool. That makes you realize how many people supported him."