Although it’s been a quarter of a century, Bill Elliott remembers his first short track win at Bristol Motor Speedway like it was yesterday.
Even a little incident involving Geoffrey Bodine in the waning laps wasn’t enough to keep the Dawsonville, Ga. driver from Victory Lane at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. That April 10th win, his first of the 1988 season, catapulted Elliott to his lone NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
In a recent interview, Elliott talked about that win, racing at BMS and his son Chase’s career, among other topics. Following is a transcript of that conversation:
Can you believe it’s been a quarter of a century since you won at Bristol? I was talking to somebody earlier about it being 25 years and I said “It just doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, seems like it was 25 days.” Time goes by so fast. Where has the time gone? My son (Chase) is now is 17 and he’s racing at a lot of these places, so I’m just trying to keep up and follow him around.
What is racing at BMS like? Over the years you have your ups and down in racing and time takes its toll on you. To come out and run 500 laps round this place is not an easy task. Granted, I had some pretty decent success here, not as good as some guys, not as bad as some others. All in all, with that being said, I just love the place. The last few times I raced here I enjoyed it -- I truly did.
What was your conversation with Geoff Bodine like after the race? I guess I thanked him for not getting four tires (laughs). I’ve always said as much as you loved or hated the guys you raced against, it was kind of being with your family. Most of them would get on top of the building and jump off the building with you if that’s what you chose to do but then again they’d scrap with you if they thought you were roughing them up, like Bodine did to me.
When I was watching video (of the race), I saw how we got together in Turn 3 and he kept coming up the hill, up the hill, up the hill, I said ‘Man he really must have wanted to spin me out.’ It was a great day, a great deal for us. We had some good times here and that was the icing on the cake. I felt that was big for us but we came back for the fall race in ‘88 and really ran well, finished second to Dale (Earnhardt) that night. It was probably the best I ever ran here, hands down. I almost beat him at the end of the race -- it came down to some lapped traffic and he was just hard to beat anyway.
What were you thinking at the end of the race? I was thinking that I had four fresh tires and he (Bodine) didn’t. All I was thinking was ‘beat him, just beat Geoff.’ That’s all I had in my head. I was going to do whatever it took but mainly, I wanted to beat him fair and square. Sometimes things happen, you crowd somebody or they crowd you… everybody sees it a different way. You look back at that race and a lot of guys had trouble, there was only a handful on lead lap. That wouldn’t happen in today’s world. These races today… there are lots of cars left on lead lap so decisions you’d make during the race were different then than they would be today.
Any other great memories from that race win? “Oh, yeah. Before we went green (on lap 498), I’ll never forget, Dale had had some sort of problem and he was several laps down; I pulled up beside him and he goes like this (waves his arm forward). That meant to get it done. I thought that was pretty funny
It was great race, my first short track win and it kind of led to the championship for me that year. A lot of good things came from me winning that race. It set our season on track, just where it needed to be. We hadn’t focused a lot on the short tracks in the early years because we felt a win at a (Super) Speedway helped you more. You got more focus put on you, you got more ink.
I’ll tell you, to this day, I still cherish that race win. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot in my career but looking back on it and how it all unfolded that afternoon… I mean, I spun out with just a few laps to go and somehow I didn’t tear my car up. At Bristol! Then I pitted and got four tires and somehow I won. I tell you what, that was two thumbs up.
What do you think about the changes at Bristol? Well, I haven’t been on it since the changes before the race last August but when I raced on it before those changes I really did enjoy it. The fans may not have but from driver’s side, it was really great and I liked it. This place though, just to see all improvements, they’ve been huge. I look at the pictures from 1961 to now and you know, I remember those days, people sitting on the grass up on the bank. It’s pretty amazing how spectacular it’s become.
What did you tell your son Chase about Bristol before he first raced here?: I told him it’s the neatest place you’ll ever go race. It’s just a lot of fun and it’s so unique. The concrete takes a little different finesse of the car and you have to approach it differently. When Chase ran here in K&N last year, he was leading the race and Ryan Blaney spun him out in (Turns) 1 and 2. They’re great friends but after the race…well, it’s just…well, what do you do. It can be a tough track and a lot of things can happen here and you just have to go on. You’ve got to have to have good spotter and good understanding of what can happen because something WILL happen. And you can be three or four cars back and you’ll end up being the one in the middle of it.
Why has Bristol been so popular with race fans? “Why has it thrived? Well, there’s a lot that goes into that. It’s a lot about the track but it’s also a lot about the people here in this area. They want you to be part of it, they want to see you coming through their doors. They’re happy you’re here. I don’t want to name names but one of the first years I raced after one of the new tracks was added I was driving to the track and I saw a sign that said “Red Necks Go Home.” That sticks with you.
The people here in Bristol, they have always embraced this track, even back years ago. You always get the feeling that they like having you here and that means something. It’s always a good feeling when you come to Bristol.
There’s really so much that drives Bristol’s popularity. It’s driven by the high banks and the speed and it’s so unique for the drivers. You just have to have a different mindset at this place and that kind of bleeds over into the fans. The fans love that excitement, plus they can see the whole venue unlike a lot of places we go to. There’s always something going on here, up front, in the back and that gets the fans so involved. That just makes it special.
If you’re talking to a new fan about Bristol Motor Speedway, how would you describe it? Intense. For the fan, for the driver, and that’s how the race is. It’s very, very intense.
How is racing different now than it was during your heyday? Oh gosh, it’s so different. I think back to how hard that era really was… you didn’t go anywhere to buy cars, you handmade stuff, and that was so time consuming. We only had five or six cars, a couple of superspeedway cars, maybe an intermediate car and a short track and road course car. You know, one of each, and we kind of scrapped something together for a backup and then hoped we didn’t have to pull it out of truck. Early on, we didn’t even have backup car.
I remember going to Charlotte when we ran for the Winston Million in ‘85. We ran The Winston at that time and we took a car that was really just a car with four tires. We did OK; we saved my best car to try to win the Winston Million. I tell you, you just didn’t have the people, the manpower to do all they do today. We never had a car sitting in truck that was 100 percent ready to go. It’s so different these days; all the technology and all they have now is just so different.
We were sometimes a victim of our own demise. I look at all the mistakes we made in ’85… If we had been better prepared and had more guys that year… We had 12 guys total in the shop, that was the engine shop and the chassis shop. We worked ourselves to death and I don’t think people realize how hard we worked to do what we did. We were focused on the speedway stuff and less on the short track stuff. As time went on we did focus more on short tracks because it became a bigger part of the picture. To win a championship we knew we had to do better on the short tracks. Still our expertise was the bigger tracks. When the season ended our main goal was to run good at Daytona and we forgot about everything past that until we got to next Superspeedway. We’d just hope we didn’t tear anything up in between just so we could make it to the next one. Now, that’s not how it is. Now every single race is a big deal. You have to win at Sonoma and Daytona and Bristol to win a championship. It’s really a different deal.
You competed some last year. Will that continue? I ran twice last year and that was enough for me. Now about all I do is try to keep up with Chase and our Late Model program. We’ve helped Ben Kennedy some, T.J. Reed and Mason Massey and between those three and what Chase has going on, I haven’t had time to do anything else. It was fun to run that car at Daytona last year for Turner. That was the best car I’ve been in in I don’t know when. But, the way I look at it, if I keep doing that then I’m taking away from somebody else getting in a car so it’s kind of a doubled-edge sword.
What driver did you look up to as a kid? (David) Pearson was always kind of my hero. Just wasn’t anybody like him. Jody (Ridley) was my short track guy. There were lots of guys I looked up to and admired and respected through the years though.
If you were the president of NASCAR for a day what would you change? First off, I’m glad I’m not (laughs). But, if I was, I would try to listen more to the competitors and try to work it to where between the fans and the competitors there was a better idea of how to direct this stuff. I listen to what everybody says… They talked about how bad the track (BMS) was when they redid it (in 2007), then I listen to the race here last year when Brad (Keselowski) won. I think it was (Kevin) Harvick who he raced side-by-side with for so many laps. That was a heck of a race – I don’t care what everybody says. When you can race a guy side by side like that, lap after lap, I mean, how do you beat that? But then people didn’t like it and they wanted it changed to something else. I don’t know… I’m confused by that.
You were voted Most Popular Driver by fans 16 times, why do you think they loved you so much? Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I was just really fortunate. I was very lucky and a lot of things just happened at the right time. Ford fans hadn’t really had anybody to pull for for a long time and I just came along at a key time for them. And I think it had something to do with my family… you know, they were all in it, my mom and dad, my grandmother, my brothers and I think people liked that it was a family thing. We all had such a bond and I think that meant something to fans.
What is the biggest difference you see in racing today from when you started out? I look at how my dad did things and how I learned and it’s so different today. We had to scrap for everything we got. Now, it’s a little different for my son because of my experiences and I’ve been able to help him. These days though, you have to come in with money and sponsors or you don’t stand a chance.
Another thing is that the media guys weren’t nearly as big a part of it back in my day. I mean, you could go and get into it in a parking lot and there might be a handful of fans standing around watching because nobody really cared. Now… well, everything is out there and turned into a big thing. Now it’s all about how well you handle yourself, how you deal with the media, the fans, the sponsors. It’s all very, very different. All of that is so important now. That just wasn’t how it was back in my day.
What needs to happen for NASCAR to keep growing? That’s hard to answer. The thing is you have to look at the playing field, the fans you’re attracting and how the sport is perceived by those fans. The Baby Boomer generation is getting older and that’s a lot of our fans so you have to try to figure out how to make them and everybody else happy. I really just don’t know how you deal with that. There’s so much more technology these days and you have to worry about how the younger fan perceives NASCAR. I think there are some things that are going to have to change to keep it growing but I just don’t have the answers to what they are.