NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott turned back the pages of history Wednesday at Talladega Superspeedway, reliving the day when he and his iconic No. 9 Thunderbird stunned the racing world with the greatest, improbable comeback win in NASCAR history.
The Sunday, May 3, GEICO 500 will mark the 30th anniversary of Elliott’s amazing run in the 1985 Winston 500 where he made up over a 5-mile deficit – without the benefit of a caution period – to capture the impossible triumph. Elliott, with smoke billowing from under his Ford’s hood, was within a few hundred yards of going two laps down to the leaders on the 2.66-mile track after taking an unscheduled pit stop to make repairs to an oil fitting line. The cool, calm Elliott didn’t sweat it, climbing all the way back to the front and rocketing to Gatorade Victory Lane.
So how did Elliott celebrate his tremendous 30-year accomplishment Wednesday? He donned a helmet, fired up the engine of the famed red, white and gold Ford that made him a legend, and made hot laps around NASCAR’s biggest and baddest track. The car’s engine hadn’t been cranked since the car was put on display at the nearby International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1986.
“It felt like a million bucks (being back in his historic car),” said Elliott, who made five laps around the track, then drove to Gatorade Victory Lane and was presented a replica trophy from 30 years ago. “I really miss the competitive side of racing week-in and week-out. I ran so many laps around this race track and tested here so many times in my career. It feels like it was yesterday I was racing here.
“The car actually drove surprisingly well. I don’t know how fast I went – couldn’t see for some dirt blowing in my eyes (laughing). I think that is the way I drove here in ’85 - with my eyes closed most of the race, so I was right at home. I wanted to go faster but the oil temp went up a bit and I said ‘it (engine) isn’t going to live long.’”
When asked if he wanted to come out of retirement to compete at Talladega again, Elliott joked, “I want to come back next Sunday (for the GEICO 500). “Don’t tell anyone. I hope the car gets through inspection.”
That unexpected 1985 pit stop, which occurred on lap 48 after Elliott had already led 25 laps, lasted one minute and nine seconds, putting the Dawsonville, GA, native within shouting distance of falling two laps down. He began his march up the leaderboard by turning laps nearly a second faster than the leaders, banking that his brother’s (Ernie Elliott) prepared engine would last. Ninety-seven laps later on lap 145, he passed Cale Yarborough down the Alabama Gang Superstretch for the lead.
“I will never forget that day in 1985,” said Elliott, who would top the scoreboard 35 of the last 44 circuits, including the final 20. “I remember coming down pit road and our guys dealing with the oil line issue. We went back out and ran wide open and I was totally shocked the motor lived all day long….totally shocked. We were a bunch of misfits put together, 12 of us total on the team, and that included the motor shop and the chassis shop. Most of the guys who pitted the car came in on weekends. We all had a good understanding of the race cars, though. It seems like it was yesterday.”
His margin of victory was 1.72 seconds ahead of a pack of cars, including Kyle Petty, who edged Yarborough at the finish line for second. Elliott averaged a then record of 186.288 mph in the race, which only had two cautions, both late in the event. The trip to Gatorade Victory Lane was his first at Talladega, and he would add to his legacy two years later with another victory. His thoughts after that day in the Winner’s Circle were as follows:
“I about kissed everything good bye because I didn’t know what happened when it started missing there (and engine started smoking),” the 16-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver said that momentous day in 1985. “But, they raised the hood and got it fixed faster than I thought they would. It felt like I sat there six or 10 laps. I worked my tail off to try and keep up. I just kept on digging. This old car kept on digging. I want to thank the good Lord for making up those laps. The old car just held together and worked.”
The triumph made Elliott 2-for-4 in his quest to win the Winston Million, the first year of a $1 million bonus program for a driver winning three of the four “Crown Jewel” races in NASCAR during one single season. He opened the year with a win in the Daytona 500 and backed that up at Talladega, and in the process won a $100,000 bonus. He would experience trouble at Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 but pulled off the $1 million dollar feat with a win in Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500, the anchor event. As a result, he became known as “Million Dollar Bill” and became the first NASCAR driver to adorn the cover of Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine.
The 1985 Talladega win was one of many accomplishments for Elliott at NASCAR’s Most Competitive track. In addition to his two victories, he had four runner-up efforts. He is the all-time leader in pole positions at TSS with eight, including six straight with sweeps in 1985, ’86 & ’87. Each of those years, the top qualifying speed was a new NASCAR official qualifying record that would be eclipsed the following year. His 1987 pole result of 212.809 mph still stands today as the official fastest ever.
As for the rest of that magical 1985 season, Elliott would win 11 superspeedway races and 11 pole positions before finishing a disappointing runner-up to Darrell Waltrip in the battle for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship. He would capture that elusive championship three years later in 1988.
(Press Release Courtesy: Talladega Superspeedway Public Relations)