By Brandon Reed
Posted in Feature Stories 4/23/10
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Bill Elliott ran what may be his greatest race, and made what is without a doubt the greatest comeback in NASCAR history.
It occurred on May 5, 1985 at Talladega, Alabama.
Leading up to the event, NASCAR had been looking for a way to slow down Bill Elliott and his Coors sponsored Ford Thunderbird.
Elliott had been on a tear since winning the season opening Daytona 500 in dominating fashion. Not even a broken leg suffered in a crash in the third race of the season at Rockingham slowed the Dawsonville, Georgia speedster down, as he rebounded two weeks later to win at Atlanta, then won again two races later at Darlington.
Coming into the May 5 event at Alabama International Motor Speedway, now known as Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR thought they had the answer to slow down Elliott, under the guise of a rule change for all the Ford teams.
At the behest of the GM teams, led in a chorus of whining by then two-time Winston Cup champ Darrell Waltrip, NASCAR raised the height of the Fords by half an inch, and also lowered the GM cars by half an inch.
Reaction was mixed. Ford pilot Cale Yarborough said he wasn’t in favor of any rule changes. Waltrip said he wanted to know how all the longtime teams could be so far behind while one team was so much better.
On the surface, the Coors-Melling team seemed pretty nonplussed about the rule chance.
“NASCAR has got a job to do,” engine builder Ernie Elliott said in a pre-race TV interview. “They’ve got to keep the field as equal as possible. My job is to make my race car as competitive as possible.”
“We didn’t have a mindset,” Dan Elliott said recently. “I think we were too stubborn. We went over there to win.”
A win in the Winston 500 would have meant a $100,000 bonus for the team after their win at Daytona in February. More importantly, it would mean they would only have to win at Charlotte later that month or Darlington in September to collect the first ever Winston Million, a million dollar bonus for any driver that won three of the big four races in a single season.
Elliott and his team showed a little of what they had on pole day. The Coors-Melling T-bird went out and shattered the world’s speed record for the track with an amazing 209.398, breaking Yarborough’s old record of 202.692, almost a seven-mile an hour difference.
When the race rolled off on Sunday, everyone expected it to be the Bill Elliott show.
While his car was running strong, Elliott stayed near the front, trading the top spot with the Fords of Cale Yarborough and Kyle Petty and the Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt. Richard Petty also took a turn or two at the front.
As the leaders approached the start-finish line to record lap 48, Earnhardt and Richard Petty were dueling for the lead. Elliott had just charged by Yarborough off of the fourth turn to take third as the cars approached the tri-oval.
Suddenly, Elliott’s red Ford began trailing smoke. Race commentators immediately called it an engine problem as Elliott slowed and made his way around the track towards the pits.
“We’ve got a race now!” one commentator said excitedly.
“I thought the engine was blowing up,” Dan Elliott said recently. “I thought we had leaned it out too much and burned a piston.”
As Richard Petty powered around Earnhardt, Elliott rolled into the pits.
Over the radio, Elliott had already revealed that it wasn’t an engine issue that was causing the smoke.
“Bill said ‘the motor was still running good. It’s not the engine,’” Dan said. “So we knew coming down pit road that it had to be an oil leak, but where it was coming from was the 64 million dollar question.”
“I was the one that found the oil leak coming from a loose line off of the sump pump,” Dan continued. “It was truly amazing that we could even get a wrench in there with the motor in to tighten that line.”
The problem having been found, a crewman jumped over the wall to grab the needed wrench to fix the problem.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Yarborough and Kyle Petty went four wide down the backstretch racing for lead. Kyle came away with the lead.
At the same time, Ernie was under the hood of the Coors-Melling Ford, tightening the oil line. Sixty-nine seconds after the car had entered pit road, the Elliott crew buttoned up the hood and sent Bill back on his way.
“It took more time to diagnose it than it took to fix it,” Dan told us.
As he roared down pit road, one of the TV commentators said “It’s an almost lost cause now for Bill Elliott.”
Certainly it must have looked that way for many watching from the stands that day. Elliott was almost a full two laps down. He had gotten back on the track a scant 2.03 seconds ahead of leader Cale Yarborough, and was listed in 26th position.
It’s one thing to make up laps at a half-mile short track. But on a 2.88 miles superspeedway such as Talladega, it’s almost impossible without a streak of good luck during these days prior to the current “Lucky Dog” rule.
But the Georgia boys still had a surprise for everybody. They were about to be witness to one of the most amazing runs in motor racing history.
As Yarborough and Kyle Petty fought for the top spot, Elliott started reeling off laps in excess of 205 mph while the rest of the field turned laps between 195 – 200 mph. It was an absolutely unheard of speed. Elliott was gobbling up about a half a second per lap.
According to Dan, even the team didn’t know how long they could keep up such speeds.
“Bill came on the radio and said ‘how long will this engine run at this pace’ and Ernie said ‘I don’t know. Run it ‘till it goes.’”
A caution would have given him a huge break. But there were no cautions, so Elliott just had to stand on the throttle and make the distance up the hard way.
Around the 100-lap mark, Elliott had charged his way back up to the lead pack, and worked his way onto Yarborough’s back bumper. As the two ran through the tri-oval, Elliott dropped low and made the pass to get back on the lead lap.
“I was listening to the scanner,” Dan Elliott told us. “I think it was Waddell (Wilson, Yarborough’s crew chief) that told Cale to latch on to him. Cale said ‘I can’t latch on to the draft. I’m not running fast enough to keep up with him.’”
All that the Dawsonville driver needed now was a caution, and he could rejoin the race on the end of the lead lap.
But, just as before, there was no caution. Elliott would again have to do things the hard way.
Elliott was also off sequence on pit stops, which helped the team a little to catch up. But with no speed limit on pit road, such as is the case today, the leaders didn’t lose as much time on pit stops. Plus, Elliott would have to pit himself, giving back any advantage he had gained.
Still rattling off 205 mph laps, Elliott flew around the track and through the field again.
With 30 laps to, Elliott moved into third place with a straightaway’s distance between himself and Yarborough. Between the two was second place Darrell Waltrip.
Waltrip’s day came to an end suddenly as the engine in his Junior Johnnson owned Chevy gave out. That left just one car between Elliott and the top spot.
Over the next few laps, Elliott closed on Yarborough, stalking the South Carolina veteran. On lap 145, Elliott dropped low on the backstretch and powered past Yarborough for the lead.
The Elliott crew jumped up and down and cheered. The fans went nuts in the stands. They had just seen history.
The first yellow flag of the event flew 14 laps later when Earnhardt’s engine came apart off of the fourth turn.
Ernie told the crew to take their time and get everything right on the pit stop. There were only three cars on the lead lap.
Yarborough would beat Elliott of off pit road. On the restart, Elliott would stay right on Yarborough’s bumper, letting him lead. This was usually Yarborough’s game, making the leader wonder when the pass was coming.
Two laps later, Elliott dropped the hammer. He passed Yarborough on the backstretch, and pulled away.
A spin by Eddie Bierschwale brought out the second and final yellow of the day. The leaders again pitted, but this time, Elliott won the race off pit road.
From there on, Elliott was unchallenged. As Elliott drove away into the history books, Yarborough and Kyle Petty fought for second. Bill Elliott would move on to win by 1.72 seconds, with Kyle holding off Yarborough for third.
As Elliott swept under the checkered flag, the fans cheered wildly and waved for the Dawsonville winner.
“The car just kept on holding together,” Elliott told reporters after the race. “The way it performed I just couldn’t believe it. The car just worked phenomenally”
It was a one-two-three sweep for Ford. Bobby Allison finished fourth in a Buick, one lap down.
The was run at a record speed of 186.288 mph, nine miles an hour faster than the fastest race in history to that point. That record would stand until the May 1997 event at Talladega, which was run caution free.
“My thoughts are the same as they’ve been about that whole 1985 season,” Dan Elliott told us. “It was a story book, fairy tale, grace of God, divine deal. Anybody that can’t see that is blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other.”
But more than that, it was a once in a lifetime race. Three years later, NASCAR mandated restrictor plates to slow the cars at Daytona and Talladega, doing away with the high speeds at the big tracks.
But, on this day back in 1985, Bill Elliott earned his nickname.
His stellar, come from behind win in the Winston 500 truly marked him as Awesome Bill From Dawsonville.
Brandon Reed is the editor and webmaster for Georgia Racing History.com.
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