At 53, the NASCAR legend most know simply as “Awesome Bill” is getting ready to call it a career… sort of. While Bill Elliott told our Mike Neff he’d retire at the end of the season, he claimed just days later he might return for a race or two in ’09 if the Wood Brothers ask him to come back. But if this IS the final month, he’ll leave a stat line worthy of a Hall of Fame nomination on the first ballot: 44 wins, 55 poles, and 320 career top 10s in 720 starts to date. Add in the 1988 Cup championship and the 1985 Winston Million – one of two drivers ever to receive that prestigious award – and it’s clear the Dawsonville, Ga. native will be remembered as one of the best men ever to slip behind the wheel of a stock car.
At one time, Elliott was so well liked he won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award a record 16 times; the honor will actually be named after him when he finally hangs it up for good. But in the past five years, he’s fallen under the radar screen, scaling back and going part-time in rides that haven’t been as competitive as he would have liked. Elliott’s best run this season came Sunday at Martinsville, placing 16th in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, and his last top 10 was at Indianapolis way back in the summer of 2004.
Prior to the TUMS QuikPak 500, Mike Neff of Frontstretch sat down (technically stood in the hauler) with Elliott to discuss the challenges of driving for a single-car team, his past success, and what the future holds following his retirement.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch: You recently announced that you are retiring. Is it really going to be for good this time?
Neff: Once you’re done with driving, will you stay involved in the sport, either consulting or maybe even helping out Brian France with things that might help NASCAR as a whole?
Elliott: I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole. I’m planning on trying to help [son] Chase [Elliott] with his career. I might do some other forms of racing, maybe run some more dirt. I’ll tell you the truth, the problem right now is there is absolutely no money available out there. We’ve been trying to do a driver development deal for him, and every door you try and open is slammed in your face. And the bad thing is, you go to a racetrack and 30 years ago, they were paying $800 to win, maybe $1,000. They’re still paying that today. Maybe if you get lucky, you can get $1,200.
But I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had a great career. I’ve had good times and I’ve had bad times.
Neff: You’ve already kind of answered it, but are you going to keep racing dirt?
Elliott: I’d like to, if I can get a little bit of funding. It’s just so expensive. Every aspect of racing has just gotten so expensive.
Neff: You were voted Most Popular Driver 10 times in a row. How much did that mean to you?
Elliott: I had a great fan following. You go to a race and have a bad day and you meet someone who tells you they’re still a fan no matter how you run. That says a lot. Regardless of who you are in this garage area, you cannot stay on top your entire career. That’s evolution; that’s just a part of life. It’s easy to be a fair weather fan. You jump on the hot guy; but as soon as times get tough, you drop him for the next guy. But I was blessed with fans who stuck with me through my entire career.
Neff: You’ve been at this for 33 years. Is there a specific memory that stands out from all of the rest?
Elliott: You can’t really single out one thing. There are some special moments. My first win, my first Daytona 500, my win at Darlington for the Million. You look back at all of the things that happened, the good and the bad, and it’s all just great memories. It was a wild ride.
The thing that I am the most proud of, though, is that we didn’t go to Joe Gibbs and buy our way in. We didn’t go to Junior Johnson and buy our way in. We did it with our guys, in our shop in Dawsonville, Ga. Can you tell me the last time a team from outside of the state of North Carolina won a championship? I can’t think of one. That’s the thing I don’t think people make enough of a point about. I’m giving credit to the guys who worked their guts out to bring that championship to us. I think that is the most understated fact about our career.
Neff: Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you wish you’d have done different, or anything you wanted to do that you didn’t get to do?
Elliott: I don’t have any regrets at all.
Neff: If you hadn’t been a racecar driver, what would you have done?
Elliott: I’d have been a heck of a ditch digger. I worked for my dad in the building supply industry. I worked for my brother. And we had a Ford dealership.
Neff: You’ve seen a lot of changes in this sport. What changes did you like the most, and which change did you like the least?
Elliott: I think the most important change we’ve had has been the safety aspect. The sad thing is it took Dale Earnhardt‘s death to really get that rolling. But I will say this; NASCAR has stepped up to the plate on that. The things they have implemented at the tracks, and everyone has pulled together on – I think that is the biggest thing I’ve seen over the years.
The negative thing, I would say, is they’re driving the little guy out of the sport. When I was doing my deal in the early ’90s there, we started out and the owner/driver was a viable entity. By the end of the ’90s, it wasn’t a viable option. So when that rumor spread through the garage, you might as well stick a cross in ya because you’re done. You can’t get funding for a one-car team, you’re done. If you’re a single car team, you just can’t compete. You look at Hendrick or Roush or Gibbs or Childress. You look at the win column this year, and they all come from those kind of teams. A lot of things are perception. We have this perception that everything is the way it should be. It gets away from that, and you suffer for it.
I guess the thing that I don’t like is the people it has run out of the business. Bud Moore and Junior Johnson, guys who sacrificed a lot to be in the business. Granted, they made some money, but they made NASCAR a lot more money. They’ve talked about franchising and all that, but it’s never going to happen.
I’ll tell you what, you can take a group of guys and run with these teams for a while, but they’re going to swallow you up. You can make a change that helps, but they’re going to be six changes ahead of you. You may have a day in the sun and shine once or twice, but year in and year out, they’re going to kick your butt. They’ve got the army. Its like that movie with the 300 Spartans. You can do it for a while – you can fight them – but you ain’t going to fight them forever. Those other teams have the manpower. You’re going to kill your people. You can keep up for a while, but you’re going to kill your people.
Neff: Last question. The rumor is going around that since you’re calling it quits, Ray Evernham would like to make good on his statement from 2003 that he’d put you in the No. 9 car for your last race. Do you think you two can get together and make that happen?
Elliott: That’s the first I’ve heard of that. From what I’ve heard about Ray and Gillett, that ain’t going to happen, though.