Darlington, SC – Bill Elliott became “Million Dollar Bill” on Sunday as he managed to avoid disaster time and again on the way to heady victory in the Southern 500 Grand National stock car race.
Elliott, driving in his intimidating Ford Thunderbird, added an unprecedented $1 million bonus to the fir-place money of $53,725 to run his season earnings to $1,857,243, an all-time auto racing record.
The 29-year old driver did it when all three of his strongest competitors went up in smoke during the race.
Elliott was then able to hold off five-time Southern 500 winner Cale Yarborough at the end
“It all turned out, but I knew if I made one mistake, Cale would be right there to take advantage of it,” drawled the excited Elliott.
“Well it’s not the money,” Elliott added. “I just felt I’d like to be the first one to do it.”
Ernie Elliott, the driver’s brother, engine builder and crew chief, said Elliott “stayed in there and dug all day long. A few years ago it was unheard of to race for money like this”
The Elliott took part in a huge and dramatic victory celebration as many in the Darlington International Raceway crowd estimated at 68,000 stuck around to watch “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” collect the $1 million check from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The award was up for the first time this year for any driver who could win three of the “Big Four” in Grand National racing.
Yarborough, who ran the last 50 laps without power steering in his Ford Thunderbird said, “There just wasn’t any way I could beat him. I couldn’t race him because the car was just too hard to turn.”
It was the 10th victory in 20 starts this season for Elliott, all on superspeedway tracks one mile or longer. That equaled the record for single-season superspeedway victories set by David Pearson in 1973.
It was Elliott’s first Southern 500 victory and his second in a row on the treacherous 1.366 mile Darlington oval. Among his earlier victories this season were the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500.
The only one of the 1985 “Big Four” the drawling red-haired driver didn’t win was the World 600 in May, where he succumbed to brake problems.
The week shrugging off the intense pressure that nearly smothered him before the World 600, Elliott first ran off to an easy pole victory on Thursday, then drove confidently to the 14 victory of his Grand National career.
However, Elliott’s Thunderbird was not dominate in the 367-lap race. In fact, he played a waiting game throughout the sweltering day as Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Yarborough each took turns controlling the race. But each ran into trouble and several times Elliott narrowly avoided a similar fate.
Just past the halfway point in the 500-mile event, during the longest green-flag stretch in the race slowed by 14 cautions periods, Elliott’s tires appeared to be wearing badly. He slipped back to fourth about 15 seconds behind Earnhardt.
The always aggressive Earnhardt, who was belching smoke from his tires on practically every turn, hung his Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS on the edge through the race. With Yarborough leading on lap 321, Earnhardt slid sideways off the second turn, tagged the outside wall, but the Chevy suddenly came down the banking and Elliott made it past by less than a yard.
Elliott took the lead by getting out of the pits ahead of Yarborough during the caution period, but when the green flag fell, Yarborough’s Ford shot past into the lead again on lap 323.
However the next time around, with Elliott right behind, Yarborough’s car began spewing fluid and smoke from a broken power steering hose. Elliott’s Ford dived low on the wide track apron to get past Yarborough and regain the lead.
During the caution, Yarborough made two pit stops to allow his crew to make repairs and he was able to stay on the lead lap and in contention.
Earnhardt’s engine finally blew on lap 338 and Gants went out on lap 349.
(Courtesy of Associated Press and Citizen Times)