Bill Elliott vanished in a puff of white smoke, and when he re-emerged, he had earned a million dollars.
That was 1985, when Elliott – a NASCAR Hall of Famer and the father of current Cup series driver Chase Elliott – needed a win at the Southern 500 in Darlington to clinch the hefty prize offered by then-title sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Here’s how it worked: Reynolds, ahead of the 1985 season, had established a million dollar prize for any driver who won three of the sport’s four biggest races – the Southern 500, plus the Daytona 500, Talladega’s Winston 500 and Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 – in the same season. The elder Elliott never expected he would be in contention.
“I said, ‘Man, that’d be great,” Elliott told the Observer Sunday of when he first heard of the prize. “Then they started naming them off and I’d never won at Daytona, I’d never won here, I’d never won at Talladega.”
But as the season progressed, his chances steadily improved. He did win at Daytona and Talladega, giving him two of three necessary victories. He also won the spring race at Darlington, which didn’t count toward the prize but gave him an idea.
“We took that same car we ran here in the spring, and we set it aside,” Elliott, 61, said. “We kept the setup, we did everything the same and brought it back here.”
Ahead of the Coca-Cola 600, national media caught wind that a victory in Charlotte would net Elliott the prize. They swarmed him all weekend, heaping praise and pressure.
“That’s when things blew up, really exploded from the media and the coverage,” Elliott said. “Charlotte went all out (with the coverage), and I wasn’t prepared for what happened in Charlotte.”
It proved overwhelming, as he didn’t win the race. Now only a victory in the Southern 500 would earn him the prize. Now the early-season decision to save his Darlington car proved prescient, as he only had to replicate that performance. Up to the last few laps he had, and when the second-place driver’s car started smoking, Bill pushed through the cloud and took first place.
Now, 32 years later, Elliott returned to Darlington to watch his son race on the same track. Chase is currently slated to make the NASCAR playoffs on points, but only a win at Darlington (or Richmond in the season finale) would guarantee that. On top of that, Hendrick Motorsports recently announced that starting next season, Chase will race in his father’s famous No. 9 car.
So who faced more pressure at Darlington: Chase, to live up to his father’s legacy and qualify for the playoffs, or Bill, to win the Winston Million?
“I think I did in ’85,” Elliott said. “I really did.”