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Bill Elliott Had A Thing For The Lady In Black

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 4 2009
The Legend of Million Dollar Bill was born at Darlington Raceway. (Photo courtesy Darlington Raceway)

The Legend of Million Dollar Bill was born at Darlington Raceway in 1985. (Photo courtesy Darlington Raceway)

 

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

In the 60 years of racing at Darlington Raceway, few events have drawn as much attention to the Lady in Black as the 1985 Southern 500. It was at that race that Bill Elliott secured the Winston Million for winning three of the four major events in a single Cup season.

His win came in the first year of the competition. It wasn’t done again until Jeff Gordon did it in 1997.

Elliott’s strong run that day shouldn’t have come as a surprise. That year, he dominated the superspeedways, winning 11 races and 11 poles. And from the start of his Cup career, he always ran well at Darlington.

In his first start there, in 1976, he finished 10th in a well-worn blue Ford Torino that his father had purchased from Richie Panch’s race team.

For that race his car carried Jimmy Means’ No. 52, so Means could keep money coming in and the Elliotts could collect a few extra dollars.

“I fell in love with the place the first time I went there,” Elliott said.

It was at Darlington that he got his first Cup pole, in 1981. From his first start in ’76 through the 1990 season, he had just two finishes outside the top 10.

Elliott said recently that if not for a faulty oil pump, his first career Cup victory likely would have come at Darlington in 1980, instead of three years later at Riverside, Calif.

 “Terry Labonte won the race in ’80, but we had a better car than him and broke an oil pump or an oil-pump belt,” he said.

In 1985, Elliott’s red and white No. 9 Fords were fast everywhere. He swept the pole and the race in the spring race at Darlington, then his team made a strategy decision that he now says could have cost him the million.

“We put that car up and didn’t run it again until the second race,” he said. “In the meantime the competition caught up. Looking back, we should have built a new car for that race.”

That season, the Elliott brothers – Bill, Ernie and Dan – had been subjected to intense attention from media and fans, something their upbringing in the remote hills of north Georgia left them totally unprepared for. The focus on them grew even more intense as his chances of winning the million dollar bonus increased. Elliott says the distractions from the media weren’t as much of an issue at Darlington as they’d been at Charlotte earlier in the season.

“By the time we got to Darlington, it had settled down a good bit,” he said. “We were rocking and rolling along, focusing more on racing.”

 In the race, his winning car from the spring was strong enough, but it was too close for comfort. Dale Earnhardt had a fast Chevy that day but blew an engine in Turn 2 after leading 147 laps. Elliott barely missed being collected, and later he had to maneuver through the fluid streaming from Cale Yarborough’s power steering pump.

Elliott assumed command for good on Lap 324 and took the checkered flag ahead of Yarborough and Geoff Bodine, the only other drivers on the lead lap.

Elliott soon became known as “Million Dollar Bill” because of the bonus he earned from series sponsor Winston. In truth, that nickname is an exaggeration. His share of the prize was a fraction of that. Team owner Harry Melling “got the majority of it” Elliott said, adding that if not for Melling’s participation he might not have been racing at that point.

To put the bonus in perspective, Elliott’s winnings that day would have been just $53,725 without it.

It was several years before the significance of what he’d done really hit home.

 “It was a big deal at the time, but I didn’t realize until after the fact just what it meant,” he said. “When you get older and look back, you really didn’t understand it all when you were young. You can put it in perspective better when you get older.”

Elliott, who isn’t running at Darlington this year, has won five times there and says the track ranks among his favorites.

“I’ll miss racing there,” he said.

 Elliott, who is expected to run about 12 races this year in the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford, said he prefers to drive at places that challenge him – Darlington, Daytona, Infineon Raceway, and even Martinsville and Bristol, even though he’s never been a big winner at either short track.

 But for him, Darlington remains on his short list of favorite tracks.

 Jeff Burton, a two-time Darlington winner, has similar sentiments about the old egg-shaped oval.

“It’s a track that people who like to drive race cars like to go to,” he said. “A driver can make a difference there.”

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, May 4 2009
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