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Elliott Survived Lions, Earned Spot In Hearts, Hall

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 23 2014

Bill Elliott, a shy country boy from Georgia, drove all the way to the Hall of Fame. (Photo by Racing Photo Archives/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In a nine-month period in the mid-1980s, Bill Elliott skyrocketed from a relatively unknown north Georgia race car driver to international stardom.

With a potent Ford Thunderbird, Elliott and his older brothers, Ernie and Dan, turned NASCAR Cup racing upside down with their victories and record pole runs. They epitomized the American dream and the fans loved them. In fact, Bill, who was named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday, won the Most Popular Driver Award a record 16 times. Their accomplishments with their small Dawsonville, Ga.-based team became legendary.

However, dealing with the new fame was tough.

“For me, early on, to get in front of a group of people and say two words was virtually impossible,” Bill said after the Hall of Fame announcement. “It was so hard for me to be open. I was so uncomfortable around people. It’s ironic I ended up where I ended up. That was the hardest part for me to overcome; being in front of a group of people, especially people from the media side because I didn’t know how to deal with them. Today, you have so many ways to learn about how to deal with different circumstances. Back then you were just thrown to the lions.

“Some of the regrets I’ve had over the years is how I handled certain things, but yet it helped grow me and shape me and make me the person I was and eventually made me a better person.”

When the Elliott family first entered NASCAR racing their father, George, owned the team. The three brothers worked around the clock on their car. They sometimes slept 12 to a room and the only time they acquired a good night’s sleep was on a race weekend because NASCAR closed the garage. When their father reached the end of his financial rope, Michigan businessman Harry Melling stepped in and took ownership of the team.

“My dad always had an insight into NASCAR and what it meant and what it meant to him,” Bill said. “He pushed us and drove us to the point of saying, ‘This is where you need to be.’ The work ethic he taught us very young was the total key to being where we were at success-wise throughout the years.”

The Cup championship eluded the 12-person team in its outstanding 1985 season when it won 11 of 28 races and the Winston Million – a $1 million bonus for the driver winning three of four designated events. However, in 1988 the Elliotts finally claimed the series coveted title with six victories, 15 top-5s and 22 top-10s in 29 races.

“Benny Parsons said you had to have a passion for the sport,” Bill said. “I looked at it and I said as much as I loved it some days and as much as I hated it other days, I still had a passion for the sport. I still had a passion for what we did and how hard we had to work to get to where we were at. I think that’s the biggest key that put everything together. What we did with the amount of people we did it with, it was incredible.”

Bill left the family operation at the end of 1991 and headed for Junior Johnson’s team. He drove three years for Johnson before fielding his own team. Before retiring, Bill relinquished his team and joined Ray Evernham’s new Dodge operation. By the time his 37-year driving career concluded, the man nicknamed “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” had produced 44 victories and 55 poles. Those statistics rank him 16th and eighth, respectively, on the all-time lists.

Bill said when it was announced he had made the NASCAR Hall of Fame he was not only happy for himself, but for his brothers, the people who had worked on his team, and the fans that had supported him.

“I’ve done a lot and I’ve been very blessed with what I’ve done,” said the 58-year-old Elliott, who emphasized he wanted his brothers to be a part of the Hall of Fame celebration. “I’m just so happy to be here. I think the months leading up to (the induction in) January will put everything in perspective.

“I think the thing I’m most proud about is we didn’t come to Charlotte and buy our way into anything. We built it through hard work and dedication. We did it all in a little shop in Dawsonville, Ga. That’s what is more special about this than anything in the world.”

Bill’s 18-year-old son, Chase, is now making his own mark in NASCAR. In his rookie Nationwide season, the JR Motorsports driver has already acquired two victories and the standings lead.

Chase wasn’t around when his father and uncles achieved their success, but he has become familiar with it.

“They really did a lot to just be a single-car operation that wasn’t from around the North Carolina area,” Chase said. “I think that’s the most impressive piece of it to me.

“He’s [Bill] had a phenomenal career and he deserves it. He doesn’t get excited about much, but he was excited about this [Hall of Fame selection], so that was pretty neat.”

Bill will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 30, 2015, 30 years after his phenomenal 1985 season.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 23 2014
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