Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: Awesome Bill Elliott Bagged Big Bucks in 1985 Southern 500

The 1985 NASCAR Winston Cup season has been recorded as one of the most unique in the sanctioning body’s history for two reasons.

First, the circuit’s sponsor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s Winston brand, posted a whopping $1 million bonus to any driver who could win three of selected four races.

Second, a young driver from Georgia who had spent several seasons in virtual anonymity broke out to become the source of widespread, almost-unending attention from fans and media. 

And he would carve his name in the NASCAR record book by winning a remarkable 11 superspeedway races in a single season.

One of these came in the Southern 500 at Darlington – a race that is a prominent part of NASCAR lore for more than one reason.

In 1985, Bill Elliott was in his third full season with team owner Harry Melling after spending seven years in limited competition with the family team owned by his father George.

The Elliott-Melling association showed promise after the driver from Dawsonville, Ga., won his first career race at Riverside in 1983.

With three more victories in 1984, Elliott became a fan favorite and a media target. But the press found it difficult to hit that target because Elliott was very shy, to say the least.

After all, he was a simple, unsophisticated Georgia boy with a shock of red hair and a distinct Southern accent. He was certainly not used to being besieged by media types who peppered him with questions.

To the press, Elliott conjured the image of a red-haired kid in bib overalls carrying a cane fishing pole to the lake, followed by his hound dog.

Hence, they gave him the nickname “Huck Finn.”

That changed in 1985.

Prior to the season R.J. Reynolds announced a new, bold program called The Winston Million.

If any driver could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the Winston 500 at Talladega and the Southern 500 at Darlington – he would receive a $1 million bonus from Winston. 

Indeed, it was a handsome reward. But to earn it a driver had to win at least three of the most prominent – and toughest – races on the schedule.

For Elliott, the Daytona 500 didn’t seem tough at all. He led 136 of 200 laps and easily beat Lake Speed in a late-race showdown. In so doing, he won the first leg of the Winston Million.

He won Darlington’s spring race for his second superspeedway victory and came to Talladega with his eyes set on a second step toward $1 million.

It was in the Winston 500 that controversy arose and Elliott was thrust into the headlines – and he went kicking and screaming.

Elliott quickly assumed the lead in the race, but he wasn’t pulling away from the field. Normally that would not cause concern, but that wasn’t the case for brother, crew chief and engine builder Ernie Elliott.

He called his brother into the pits and Bill spent one minute and nine seconds off the track while Ernie located and repaired a broken oil fitting.

When Elliott returned to racing, he was in 26th place and only two seconds away from going two laps down.

“Well,” the media said, “he’s finished for the day.”

Not so – remarkably.

Elliott spent the next 100 laps passing his rivals left and right. He consistently ran at 203 mph or above and made up one lost lap with almost another to go.

The absence of caution flags meant two things: The race was quickly becoming the fastest 500-miler ever run and an unchallenged Elliott was rapidly moving into the lead.

He recaptured first place on lap 145 and the full grandstands at Talladega erupted into cheers. They had never seen anything like it, nor had anyone else.

After the first caution period on lap 185, Elliott, equipped with fresh tires and fuel, easily outran Kyle Petty and Cale Yarborough to win the second leg of the Winston Million.

Over the years, the fact Elliott made up nearly two lost laps under green has come under suspicion. There have been claims that it never happened – rather, Elliott took advantage of at least one caution period. Or, perhaps, there was an undiscovered scoring error.

Nothing of the sort. Elliott did it. I was there and I was one of several media members in the press box who studiously logged his progress – and, I might add, were as astonished as the fans over his achievement.

But afterward, suspicion of another sort arose. Mainly, it wasn’t so much that Elliott made up nearly two lost laps, it was more of just how he did it.

His obvious horsepower superiority could mean only one thing: Ernie had found something inside the engine. He was the only one to do so and he was not about to tell anyone anything.

Asked about it more than once, Bill’s standard answer was, “It’s a combination,” which, as was assumed, meant that his car’s handling and horsepower were responsible.

Elliott said “It’s a combination” so often that the cynical, probing media had reached their limit.

“If he says that one more time, I’m gonna choke him,” some of them grumbled.

Others were a bit more colorful.

Elliott’s horsepower was a subject constantly talked and written about. The popular magazine Stock Car Racing even ran a cover story about “How Ernie Elliott Does It.” 

It was unclear what it was, however. And Ernie kept right on doing it.

Bill didn’t fare well at Charlotte, which meant that if he was going to claim the bonus, he would have to win the Southern 500.

He came into the race with a swollen streak of superspeedway victories – Dover, two at Pocono and two at Michigan.

The Southern 500 was undoubtedly the most anticipated race of the season. It was sold out and there was almost an electric feel to the morning of the event, generated by the intense anticipation of what the day might bring.

The speedway – and NASCAR – tried to remove Elliott away from as much distraction as possible. They arranged for two South Carolina Highway Patrol officers to be his bodyguards for the week. Their duty was to be vigilant and protect Elliott from unwanted attention from fans and media alike.

To which the media responded: “Good. At least we won’t have to hear him say, ‘It’s a combination’ again.”

As for the race, it appeared for the most part that the $1 million was going to be out of Elliott’s grasp. He won the pole but was soon racing behind Harry Gant, Dale Earnhardt and Yarborough. At one point, Elliott was nearly a lap down.

But then, fate stepped in.

Gant, who had led most of the race, retired with a blown engine. Earnhardt spun out in the second turn to take himself out of the race. Yarborough’s car erupted in smoke and it was thought he, too, suffered engine failure.

Turns out it was failed power steering, and Yarborough survived to challenge Elliott, now the leader as the race entered its final 40 laps.

Yarborough and Elliott engaged in a lively duel, swapping the lead several times. But it was Elliott that finished first by 0.60-second to claim a reward of nearly $1.06 million.

Victory lane was the site of pandemonium. Not only were Elliott and crew there, but also many NASCAR, Winston and track officials – and several others.

Confetti flew everywhere. Well, it looked like confetti. But it was specially printed “Bill Elliott Bucks” representing the Winston Million.

I got my hands on a couple and immediately realized they were going to be worth something.

Elliott’s name was misspelled. The “bills” read “Bill Elliot Bucks.”

And later, rumors circulated that R.J. Reynolds was somewhat unprepared to pay The Winston Million. The story was that it had not insured the award – with Lloyd’s of London, the tale went.

Instead, the tobacco company had to pay Elliott out of its own pocket. 

Of course, it was all rumor. But it was never denied.

As for Elliott, he left the race 205 points ahead of Darrell Waltrip in the points standings with eight races remaining and won his 11th superspeedway race of the season. 

But he did not win the Winston Cup championship.

And that is another story.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Steve C

Thanks for the memories Steve. I was there. Great race, fun day. A whole different world now in na$car. I didn’t realize I was so lucky to be a young adult in THE BEST era of this league of racing.

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