When the media first saw Bill Elliott in 1976 it was all they could do not to laugh.
Oh, they had seen kid race drivers before and they certainly had seen one-car, family-owned teams that didn’t have the equipment or personnel to hang around NASCAR any longer than a few races.
But what was different was Elliott himself. He was a Georgia boy from Dawsonville who was the perfect example of a hayseed – the term used by many cynical media members.
He was thin with a full head of curly red hair. When he spoke the Georgia accent oozed. It was easy to picture him on a riverbank, cane pole in hand and a stalk of straw hanging out of his mouth.
All he was missing was a face full of freckles.
Almost immediately the media gave him a new name: “Huck Finn.”
He might have been on a basement-tier team owned by his father George, but ol’ “Huck” was a persistent cuss.
With the help of brother Ernie, the engine builder, and Dan, youngest of the clan, Elliott kept racing, year after year.
He never competed on the full schedule – most of the time he entered no more than 13 races a year – but he never left. Five years after his debut, “Huck” was still racing.
Then things began to change.
In 1982 George Elliott sold the family team to Harry Melling, an industrialist from Michigan who was virtually unknown in NASCAR.
In 21 races that season Elliott compiled eight top-five finishes and won his first career pole position at Michigan.
The media wasn’t overly impressed. They still called him “Huck Finn.”
In 1983, jaws dropped and eyebrows rose during Elliott’s first year on the full schedule. “Huck” won one race, finished 12 times among the top five and ran up 22 finishes among the top 10. He finished third in points.
After Elliott won the last race of the year at Riverside, Bobby Allison was prompted to say, “Ol’ ‘Huck’ did good, didn’t he?”
He would do better. In 1984, Elliott won three races, finished among the top five 13 times and 24 times among the top 10. He again finished third in points.
Now he was considered a rising star. But the name “Huck” didn’t go away.
It all changed in 1985. Elliott had one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history. He set and broke records. He turned the world of auto racing on its ear.
Elliott won 11 superspeedway races and 11 pole positions – a feat since unequaled.
The season was the first for the Winston Million, a program designed by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., sponsor of the Winston Cup Series.
Any driver who could win three of four selected races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500 – would receive a $1million bonus from RJR.
Of course, Elliott won it with victories at Daytona, Talladega and Darlington.
During all of this the media quit poking fun at Elliott. Instead they sought to find the reasons why his Ford was so much faster than any other car on the track.
Conspiracy theories were published. Some said Ernie had found a few tricks even the best engine builders did not know. The team had a special fuel additive.
One major stock car magazine announced in bold headlines that it had found the Elliott secret. Well, no. Even Ernie, normally a taciturn fellow, shook his head and laughed when he read the article.
The media besieged Elliott. A normally shy, quiet guy, this made him uncomfortable. He tried to answer the burning question of his newly found speed, saying repeatedly that he and Ernie had found “the combination” that worked for his car and engine.
The media moniker “Huck Finn” disappeared. It was washed away by waves of fan admiration. They gave him the name “Awesome Bill From Dawsonville.”
His popularity increased after he won the Winston Cup championship in 1988.
Fact is it never wavered.
Elliott won the Most Popular Driver Award in every year except three from 1984-2002. His fans were intensely loyal.
However, Elliott had to travel to New York each year to receive his award.
Elliott was decidedly not a New York-type of guy. More than once he was seen ducking into his hotel room with bags of groceries, done for the night.
Now 59 years old and retired from racing since 2012, Elliott will receive another, deserved honor.
He will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 30.
Certainly he could not have imagined this when he started racing as a red-haired country boy all those years ago.