Former Observer motorsports writer Tom Higgins, in the fourth of a five-part series, recounts his most memorable Southern 500s leading up to Sunday’s return of the race to Labor Day weekend after a 10-year absence.
It appeared that Bill Elliott’s bid for a $1 million bonus had gone up in smoke.
A thick, white plume enveloped his Ford in Turn 4 and down the frontstretch at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in the Southern 500 on Sept. 1, 1985.
The smoke was spewing from a Ford driven by leader Cale Yarborough. There seemed no way a blinded Elliott, following closely, could get through it from second place without losing control and crashing.
As Yarborough slowed, Elliott flashed from the fog, taking the lead on the 324th of 367 laps at the historic 1.366-mile track. He never gave up the front spot, although Yarborough rallied from a failed power steering line – not a blown engine – to mount a strong challenge.
Elliott sped under the checkered flag six-tenths of a second in front of Yarborough and The Winston Million bonus was secured in the first year it was offered, much to the delight of Elliott’s massive following.
“Honestly, I can’t tell how I made it through that smoke,” a jubilant Elliott said. “I couldn’t see a thing.”
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, then the title sponsor of NASCAR’s premier series, had established the rich prize for a driver winning three of the sport’s Big Four races – the Daytona 500, Talladega’s Winston 500, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 – in the same season.
Elliott triumphed at Daytona and Talladega, Ala., but faltered at Charlotte. The Darlington race was his last chance.
Some members of the media had hounded Elliott constantly at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. A few even tried to crawl under the car with him as he worked on the chassis setup of his red and white No. 9 Thunderbird, fielded by Harry Melling.
No such nonsense was tolerated at Darlington. Two burly, stern-looking S.C. state troopers were at Elliott’s side at all times while he was at the track. Anyone who approached, especially in the garage area, quickly was shooed away.
“I hate it,” Elliott said, “but I need to be working on my car, not giving interviews.”
He heightened the already-soaring drama when he won the pole at 156.641 mph, assuring the track would be packed.
An estimated 80,000 onlookers at the speedway and a national TV audience watched as Dale Earnhardt emerged as Elliott’s strongest challenger, leading five times for 147 laps before having an engine failure and retiring on the 349th lap.
Elliott also experienced an exceedingly close call when Earnhardt spun directly ahead of him in Turn 2. Elliott missed the famous No. 3 Chevrolet by inches.
“I don’t know how I got by,” Elliott said. “I had my eyes shut waiting for the crash.”
In the end, it was Elliott’s day.
“What a day, what a day!” he gushed during the winner’s interview. “Thank the Good Lord for looking out for me today. We didn’t outrun ‘em, we outlasted ‘em.”
As Elliott celebrated, local hero Yarborough, deeply disappointed he hadn’t won the storied Labor Day race a sixth time, lamented the power steering failure.
“I had plenty enough engine to have beaten Bill, but after the steering problem it was like trying to drive a freight train around the track,” Yarborough said.
In Victory Lane, hundreds of phony $1 million bills bearing Elliott’s likeness floated around his head, released from above. They became instant collectors’ items, especially since his name was misspelled “Eliott.”
“Awesome Bill From Dawsonville” had become “Million Dollar Bill.”
Or should it be “Milion Dolar Bil?”
In epilogue, Elliott posted 44 victories during his career of 828 series starts, including 11 on tracks at least a mile in length in 1985. He won the 1988 premier series championship. His son Chase won the 2014 championship in what is the Xfinity Series and plans a move to the major tour in 2016. The elder Elliott, already a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, will be inducted into the National Motorspors Press Association’s Hall in Darlington on Friday evening.
1985 Southern 500: Top 5 finishers
1. Bill Elliott
2. Cale Yarborough
3. Geoffrey Bodine
4. Neil Bonnett
5. Ron Bouchard