Darlington Legends: Million Dollar Bill
DARLINGTON, S.C. (May 1, 2009) – Bill Elliott wasn’t exactly daydreaming that evening in 1984 when RJ Reynolds Tobacco president Gerry Long laid out the guidelines for the Winston Million bonus, but he might have been excused for not giving Long his full attention.
Elliott’s head wasn’t elsewhere. He just didn’t think Long’s terms applied.
“I was sitting at the banquet in New York in ’84,” the future Hall of Famer from the mountains of north Georgia said, “and I was thinking for me it was an impossibility. There were several of those races that I’d never won.
“It might as well have been light years away.”
Little did Elliott know that on a sweltering Labor Day weekend in Darlington, SC, that fall, that he’d shorten that light year to a mere nine months.
But then again, he sort of snuck up on everybody else in racing, too.
Elliott won his first then-Winston-, now-Sprint-Cup race in 1983, and won three more the next season. But nobody, not even Elliott himself, expected a breakout year like 1985.
Before the 1985 season was over, Elliott racked up 11 pole positions and 11 wins, and that included the first Winston Million.
The week after the Southern 500, Elliott’s face was plastered on the cover of Sports Illustrated (a rarity for a race car driver in those days) in Darlington’s victory lane with a flurry of bogus “Million Dollar Bills” filling the air.
In a season, Elliott went from a rawboned country boy to “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”
“It was a pretty big deal back then,” Elliott said in a masterstroke of understatement. Twenty-four years later, it still is.
The criteria for the Winston Million was indeed daunting: The driver who won the three of four of NASCAR’s crown jewel races – the Daytona 500 (biggest), Coca-Cola 600 (longest), Winston 500 (fastest) and Southern 500 (oldest) – in the same season would claim the $1 million Winston Million prize.
Only two drivers before, Lee Roy Yarbrough in 1969 and David Pearson in 1974, had ever accomplished the “mini-slam” of winning three of those races in a season. Only one since – Jeff Gordon in 1997 -- ever managed to match Elliott’s payday.
The program was diluted into the “No Bull 5” in 1998, where five drivers (as well as five fans) in five selected races had a shot at $1 million.
Even Gordon’s run in ’97 had the backing of juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports.
What made Elliott’s feat so spectacular was the fact that he did it with a small, family-run outfit in Dawsonville, GA, out of sight of all the big-moneyed teams around the racing hub in Charlotte, NC.
“We were our own race team down here in Georgia,” Elliott said. “We didn’t go to Junior Johnson (for advice), we didn’t go to Bud Moore or the Wood Brothers. We were our own deal, and we built a team that won races and won a championship out of here, and nobody else has done it.”
In truth, Elliott’s route to the million was as good for NASCAR and Winston as it was for him.
Elliott blew away the field in winning the Daytona 500, and on sheer horsepower made up nearly two laps in a long run of green-flag racing to win the Winston 500 in Talladega.
He stumbled badly in Charlotte in May, experiencing brake problems with his No. 9 Coors Thunderbird, and finished 18th in the Coke 600.
That left the whole summer for NASCAR and Winston to drum up interest in one of its number becoming the first driver to cash a $1 million paycheck.
The late T. Wayne Robertson, Winston’s front man on the publicity end, did a masterful job of that.“I remember driving down to Darlington with Gerry, and he kept asking me if
I had had the million insured,” Robertson said a few years later. “Every time he’d ask, I’d say, ‘Isn’t that a nice field of cotton over there, Gerry?’ Or, ‘Boy, it sure looks like we’re going to have great weather in Darlington.’
“He was worried we were actually going to have to pay it, and we did, but we wound up getting that million back many times over in free advertising.”
By the time the Southern 500 rolled around, it had become a very big deal, but it had a cost. Back in those days, Elliott was still a member of the crew who carried a toolbox, not a briefcase.
“That’s where it was so difficult to pull it all together. Today, when these guys get out of the car, they go to their motorhomes,” Elliott said.
“Back then, when I was out of the car, I was under the car, or changing motors or springs or something. I had so much (media attention) thrown at me at Charlotte – I had so much to do – that I had to go to Darlington and say, ‘OK, look: There’s a time for you guys, and here’s the time.”
It was a harbinger of the future. Access to Elliott was limited to strictly scheduled interviews, and two big South Carolina state troopers flanked him the entire weekend to make sure no one got close to him who wasn’t supposed to.
Elliott knew he could win at Darlington, because he’d won the TranSouth 500 at the ornery old track that spring. In fact, he said, they withdrew that car from competition (an unusual move in the days where teams didn’t prepare 25-30 cars for a season), in order to have it ready in the fall.
“We went through it, and did everything we knew to do to it,” he said. “But by the time Darlington came in September, the competition was a lot better.
“Earnhardt was good, Gant was good, Cale was good. But they all had problems.
“I was about a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-place car, and ended up winning the race.”
Well, there was a little more to it than that.
As he had done in the three “Million” races before, Elliott started on the pole. But he was correct in saying the competition had gotten better. Dale Earnhardt and Harry Gant were every bit his match for most of the afternoon, but Gant’s Chevrolet dropped a cylinder and Earnhardt’s hit the wall.
Then came the real challenge. Cale Yarborough, the stocky little three-time champion from nearby Sardis, passed Elliott for the lead on lap 323, but on the backstretch the next time around, smoke belched from underneath Yarborough’s Ford.
Elliott re-took the lead, but he wasn’t home-free. The smoke from Yarborough’s car wasn’t from the engine. His power steering line had erupted.
That would have been enough for most men, but Yarborough set off after Elliott driving a car he said “drove like a freight train,” and dogged him to the end. Yarborough finished six tenths of a second behind Elliott, and a legend was added to NASCAR’s history.
Elliott wouldn’t have had it any other way, because he knew one thing: Yarborough was going to make him earn it fair and square, and he did.
“I love Cale. I respected Cale as much as anyone,” Elliott said. “I’ll tell you what: If you wanted to strap it on, he’d strap it on with the best of you. But if you wanted to drive and treat him with respect, he’d respect you as much as anybody out there.”
Now, nearly a quarter of a century – and over $40 million in career winnings – later, Elliott won’t say that day was his best. But it’s on a short list.“Winning Daytona, winning a championship, and winning there, coming back to Indy (and winning in 2002), it’d have to be a three- or
four-way tie,” Elliott said. “It’d have to be up close to the top.”
Darlington Raceway or the track “Too Tough to Tame” as it is known to many, is where the purest of NASCAR competition meets true southern hospitality. A NASCAR staple since 1950, Darlington Raceway has seen some of motorsports most talented drivers thunder to Victory Lane. In 2009 a NASCAR tradition, the Southern 500®, will return as Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 Seasons of Racing.
Be a part of history when Darlington Raceway celebrates 60 years of racing in 2009. Tickets to the 2009 Southern 500®, as well as the NASCAR Nationwide Series Diamond Hill Plywood 200 are on-sale now. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.