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Before there were plates: Awesome Bill, Talladega and the 1985 Winston 500

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May 1985 was an interesting time in American and NASCAR history.

As the month opened, the musical achievement of “We are the World” by U.S.A for Africa (AKA 45 artists including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen and … Dan Aykroyd) was in its fourth and final week atop the Billboard Hot 100.

In cinemas, the Chuck Norris film Code of Silence (“Eddie Cusack is a good cop having a bad day”) had opened as the No. 1 film.

And in sports, some guy named Bill from Dawsonville, Georgia, was in the process of making himself a household name.

(Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

At 29, Bill Elliott and the No. 9 Coors Light Ford of Melling Racing had won three of the first eight races of the Winston Cup season, including the Daytona 500. As the Winston Cup Series rolled in to Talladega, Alabama, Elliott was fourth in the standings, 81 points behind leader Geoffrey Bodine.

In its first year of existence, Elliott was aiming to win the “Winston Million.” If a driver won three of four races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500, the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway or the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway – they’d win $1 million.

Pretty simple.

There’s one big difference between a race at Daytona and Talladega in 1985 and 2017: restrictor plates. The metal plate that bunches fields together and regularly causes “The Big One” today was still three years away in 1985.

The driver with the fastest car could literally run away, hide from the rest of the field and lap them a few times if lucky.

That’s the way the world was May 5, 1985. Bill Elliott sat on the pole and Cale Yarborough’s No. 28 Hardee’s Ford was second. Only 39 cars started the race (after Greg Sacks pulled out for engine problems). It was the smallest Talladega field ever at the time.

All of the following YouTube videos in this post combine race footage with radio broadcast by MRN Radio. They’re heavily edited, condensing the two-hour and 41 minute race to about 60 minutes.

Barney Hall, Mike Joy and Danny Sullivan were on the call and Dr. Jerry Punch and Ned Jarrett were in the pits.

At the drop of the green, Yarborough quickly assumed the lead, followed by Kyle Petty as Elliott fell back to fifth.

Elliott would take the lead for the first time on Lap 6 and would lead the strung out field for 22 circuits of the 2.66-mile track. Then on Lap 28, a fellow named Dale Earnhardt would take the lead. The 35-year-old driver had already won at Talladega twice, in the fall of 1983 and 1984. Spoiler alert: he wouldn’t win there again until 1990, three years into his sponsorship deal with Goodwrench.

Around Lap 37, the leaders begin pitting for the first time. Pit road in 1985 was a very different place. A speed limit didn’t exist (and wouldn’t until 1991 following the death of crew member Mike Rich in an accident in the 1990 finale) and pit stops went by at leisurely Sunday pace.

Leader to the Rear

We have a development! Around Lap 48, with Earnhardt leading Richard Petty, Elliott had just taken third from Yarborough when smoke erupted from his No. 9 Ford on the frontstretch. Elliott was able to make it back to pit road. The hood went up on his car.

“If it is indeed engine trouble, it would be the first time since 1982 that the Elliott team has lost an engine in a Grand National stock car race,” Mike Joy informed listeners.

It would turn out to be a problem with the oil pump. Which is funny given the “Melling Oil Pumps” logos on the car’s rear quarter panels.

“I about kissed everything good bye because I didn’t know what happened when it started missing there,” Elliott said in 2015. “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.”

According to book “NASCAR: The Complete History,” Elliott returned to the track in 26th, 2.03 seconds from going two laps down.

If I know my NASCAR, Elliott’s day was clearly done, folks.

 

It wasn’t over, folks.

Fifty-four laps were complete in the Winston 500 when Barney Hall gave listeners an update.

“That five-car draft has broken away from the rest of the field and Bill Elliott continues to drive away from the now leader Cale Yarborough. A moment ago the interval was about three seconds, he was in danger of going two laps down, but now he’s going to make sure they do not catch him.”

Indeed.

An Era of Attrition

If you look at a post-race report from Talladega or Daytona today, either half the field will be eliminated or only three cars won’t make it to the end. It’s a toss-up.

In 1985, a valve issue made Richard Petty the 13th driver to end their day in the garage. By race’s end, just over half the field, 20 cars, were out. Just one was eliminated via a crash.

Due in part to all the early exits, Elliott was 12th by Lap 101, still a lap down. MRN was clocking the No. 9 Ford at making laps of 46.8 seconds, or about 204 mph.

Eventually, Elliott swept underneath Yarborough to get his lap back in Turn 1. Elliott was able to do all of this without the aid of a caution.

On Lap 145, Elliott used the draft to again surge by Yarborough going into Turn 3 to take the lead.

A caution finally appeared with 28 to go as Bodine smacked the wall out of Turn 4. In the pits, Yarborough beat Elliott off pit road.

On Lap 169, Elliott once again charged by Yarborough to retake the lead. The moment is marked by a loud cheer heard over the MRN broadcast. It’s reminiscent of the many times an Earnhardt would take the lead at the track.

World Record

Fourteen laps from the finish, the final caution waived for the one-car crash of Eddie Bierschwale.

The field would pit with Elliott winning the race off pit road. But during the potentially race deciding pit stops, one team that was out of the race took that moment to push their car back up pit road as cars exit their stalls, including Elliott’s. During a previous pit stop, a camera man could be seen standing in the infield grass as cars zoomed by.

From my couch in 2017, 1985 pit stops were scary.

The final restart came with 10 to go and Elliott leading.

The closing laps would be decided by Elliott, Yarborough and Kyle Petty. This is significant because they were the only cars on the lead lap.

The last time a restrictor-plate race ended with 10 or less cars on the lead lap was the July 1995 race at Talladega (nine cars).

Petty’s performance was aided by the fact that fellow Ford driver Elliott had given the Wood Brothers Racing his exact chassis set up that weekend.

When Elliott took the white flag, no one was within striking distance of the No. 9 Ford. There would be no draft induced last-lap heroics. Ninety-seven laps after his unexpected pit road visit, Elliott won the Winston 500 by 1.72 seconds over Kyle Petty.

“If Bill hadn’t helped us, we wouldn’t have been able to finish second,” Eddie Wood said. “And when someone puts on a performance like he did, making up two laps under green, they deserve to win.”

Bill Elliott’s historic win was his eighth victory in the Winston Cup Series. The average speed for the Winston 500 was 186.288 mph, a word record for a 500-mile race. The average speed of the race in 2016 was 140.046 mph.

Said crew chief Ernie Elliott, “We’re going to go faster, if the good Lord’s willing.”

Two races later, in Charlotte, Bill Elliott would fail to clinch the “Winston Million” when a mechanical problem caused him to finish the Coke 600 in 18th.

But come September, Elliott became the first of two men to ever claim the $1 million prize when he won the Southern 500.

In addition to the money, the achievement put Elliott on the Sept. 9 cover of Sports Illustrated.

The “Winston Million” would not be awarded again until 1997, when Jeff Gordon won it in its final year of existence.

Elliott would continue to have speed at Talladega. The 1985 Winston 500 was the first of six-straight poles for Elliott at the superpeedway. But his second and last win in Alabama wouldn’t come until the fall 1987 race.

That year, Elliott also set the NASCAR qualifying record at 212.229 mph.

MORE: Chase Elliott’s wears shoes honoring father’s 1987 record.

In 1985, Elliott and his No. 9 team would win 11 times, the most in Elliott’s 37 years of Cup competition. But thanks to late-season troubles, the title went to Darrell Waltrip, who only had three wins, but more top fives and top 10s than Elliott.

Elliott’s first and only Cup title would not come until 1988.

The car Elliott drove to his 1985 win was placed in Talladega’s museum the next year. In 2015, it was started for the first time in 30 years as Elliott drove hot laps around the track to commemorate the race’s anniversary.

Whatever happened to: Melling Racing

Harry Melling’s involvement in NASCAR began in 1979 as a sponsor of Benny Parsons. In 1981, the tool manufacturer was also a primary sponsor of the Elliott families’ racing efforts. But in 1982, Melling bought Elliott’s team and made it his own. Together they became one of the dominate forces in NASCAR in the 80s, winning 34 races from 1983 to 1991.

In 1992, Elliott left the team to race for Junior Johnson. Melling Racing would compete on a part-time basis for the next three years before fielding the No. 9 SPAM Ford for Lake Speed in 1995-1996. Speed drove for Melling through 1998. Jerry Nadeau then drove the No. 9 Cartoon Network Ford from 1998 – 1999.

The week of the 199 Coke 600, Harry Melling died of a heart attack at 53. His son Mark took the reins of the team, which competed in 81 more races through 2002. In January 2003, the team ceased operations after failure to secure sponsorship.

While its last race was in August 2002 at Michigan, the team had one last moment of glory seven starts before that with Stacy Compton. On Oct. 21, 2001, a day remembered for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first win at Talladega, Melling Racing began the race in a familiar spot at the superspeedway – the pole position.

This is the second in an occasional series looking back at classic NASCAR races (at least those that are on YouTube).

First entry: Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s final win at Martinsville

Atlanta Motor Speedway accepting lucky charms to help Chase Elliott earn first Cup win

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The president of Atlanta Motor Speedway is hoping history will repeat.

Ed Clark is doing whatever he can to get Georgia-native Chase Elliott to Victory Lane for the first time in the Cup Series.

To do that, he’s using the same marketing scheme he executed in 1983 in the weeks before Bill Elliott’s first Cup victory.

AMS is asking for fans to send lucky charms to the track, which will be presented to Chase Elliott during a special event there Feb. 13.

There’s no restrictions on what can be sent.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is winless after 77 starts in NASCAR’s premier series.

Bill Elliott in 1983. (Atlanta Motor Speedway).

His father went winless in his first 155 starts from 1976-83.

Clark put together the original lucky charm drive ahead of the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he served as public relations director.

“The promotion we came up with for Bill in ’83 created an amazing amount of interest and support from fans all over the country,” said Clark in a press release. “We received package after package full of good-luck charms, and it seemed like everybody was pulling for him to get that first win.”

Three races later, in the season finale at Riverside International Raceway, the 28-year-old Bill Elliott claimed his first of 44 Cup victories.

Fans can send their lucky charms to Elliott by shipping them to AMS at 1500 Highway 19/41, Hampton, GA 30228, with attention to “Good Luck, Chase.” Fans can also participate by using the hashtag #GoodLuckChase across the various social media platforms with pictures and messages to Elliott.

The Cup season begins Feb. 18 with the 60th Daytona 500. The following weekend, the series visits Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Go Fas Racing secures charter by partnering with Circle Sport Racing

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Go Fas Racing has secured a charter for Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 32 Ford by partnering with Circle Sport Racing.

The move comes after Go Fas Racing’s owner Archie St. Hilaire entered into a partnership with the Wood Brothers that allowed the Wood Brothers to retain the charter they leased last year from Go Fas Racing.

That move left Go Fas Racing without a charter. That matter was resolved with the partnership with Circle Sport Racing car owner Joe Falk, who recently split with TMG.

“This deal pretty much fills our plate for the 2018 season,” St. Hilaire said in a statement from the team. “We decided that the best long-term strategy for GFR’s original charter was to strike a deal with our good friends at Wood Brothers Racing, which left us seeking a charter for our own No. 32 car. I think this partnership with Joe Falk is mutually beneficial for both Joe and ourselves going into the future. Joe has been in the business for a long time and will add a wealth of knowledge to our programs in 2018 and beyond.”

Said Falk in a statement: “We have been talking about doing this for over a year and it was a big decision to switch to Ford, but we believe it will pay off. This is a performance business and we have not had the team to get good finishes. We are also working on running the No. 33 car in select events with young drivers such as Joey Gase to help get them prepared for a full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season going forward.”

CHARTERS THAT HAVE CHANGED TEAMS FOR 2018

— Furniture Row Racing #77 charter sold to JTG Daugherty for No. 37 car

— Roush Fenway Racing #16 charter sold to Team Penske for No. 12 car

— Richard Petty Motorsports #43 charter leased to Rick Ware Racing for No. 51 car

— Wood Brothers Racing forms long-term partnership with Go Fas Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire that grants Wood Brothers full operating control of the No. 32 team’s charter it leased last year.

— Go Fas Racing forms partnership with Circle Sport Racing owner Joe Falk for his charter for the No. 32 team.

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Kasey Kahne looks to run 20-30 races outside NASCAR this year

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Kasey Kahne, who competed in last week’s Chili Bowl Nationals, says he plans to run two dozen or more races outside of NASCAR this season.

Kahne, who is in his first season with Leavine Family Racing, made the comments Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.’’

“I’ve always tried to stay close to the type of racing that I learned how to race in and the type of cars that I learned how to race in and those fans and race tracks that I’ve spent a ton of time at and have really enjoyed over the years,’’ Kahne said of racing sprint and midget cars on dirt. “I’m still a huge fan of that type of racing because that’s where I came from and want to be for a long, long time.

“We have two (World of) Outlaw teams again this year, Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, and I feel like I can run 20 to 30 races depending on the schedules and how everything works out. I’m really looking forward to that because that’s something that I wanted to do for a long time and I could do it and then I couldn’t do it.’’

Kahne, who was with Hendrick Motorsports the previous six seasons, was asked if he was prohibited from racing such cars.

“When I signed up, I wasn’t at all and they said I could do whatever I wanted and enjoy it,” Kahne said. “A year later, I was restricted from everything and wasn’t able to do that anymore and then the last year they were pretty cool about it, but it was always kind of feeling like you were making somebody mad. I won’t have that because Leavine … they know that that’s what I love to do and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want it to affect the No. 95 in anyway. That’s the first priority to me. When we’re not doing that, it’s OK, nobody is going to be mad if I go and try to do a little racing. It makes me feel pretty good to be in that situation again.’’

Kahne is just one of a few NASCAR drivers expected to run in other series this year. Kyle Larson, who raced a midget car in New Zealand before competing in Chili Bowl Nationals, has said he’s allowed to run 25 such events a year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says he plans to run some midget races this summer.

Kahne also has been busy getting prepared for his new ride. He has a one-year deal with Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with Richard Childress Racing. Travis Mack, who had been at Hendrick Motorsports, will be Kahne’s crew chief.

Kahne cited performance — he had one win and nine top-five finishes in the past three seasons with Hendrick — and business as a reason for the change.

“I’m perfectly fine with it because I’m glad I’ve moved on and am doing something different at this point and really looking forward to Leavine and my future and the new things that I have going on,’’ said Kahne, who finished 15th in the points last year after making the playoffs with his Indianapolis victory. “I don’t look back on any of it as a bad thing.’’

Asked if he feels reinvigorated with the changes, Kahne told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “I feel just to kind of start over is never a bad thing, especially with our performance. I was never happy the last three years, I haven’t been that happy as far as racing went because we could never really figure it out. Just to have a new group, start over, try to do things together and see how good we can do. To me, that’s exciting and new and fresh and I look forward to that.’’

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Todd Gilliland to drive No. 4 for Kyle Busch Motorsports; father to fill-in at Daytona

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Todd Gilliland will get a helping hand driving Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota this season before he turns 18 on May 15.

The two-time K&N Pro Series West champion will miss four of the first six races to start the year because of NASCAR’s rule that drivers under 18 years old are restricted to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length or road courses.

Gilliland will miss the season-opener at Daytona (Feb. 16), Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2) and Kansas (May 11).

After starts at Martinsville (March 24) and Dover (May 4) to begin his Rookie of the Year campaign, his first race on a 1.5-mile track will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.

Team owner Kyle Busch will drive the No. 4 at Atlanta and Kansas.

In a video released by the team on Twitter, it announced that Gilliland’s dad, David Gilliland, will open the season at Daytona.

The former Cup driver will make his first NASCAR start since 2016 in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.

A veteran of 398 national NASCAR races, David Gilliland’s last Truck Series start was in 2015. He has 10 Truck starts. One of those was at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona, 2015).

That’s not the only race the elder Gilliland will try to be part of that weekend.

He will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Ricky Benton Racing, which has fielded the No. 92 in the Truck Series since 2010.

Gilliland will attempt to qualify the No. 92 Black’s Tire and Auto Service/Carquest Auto Parts Ford into the “Great American Race.” If he’s successful, it will mark the Cup debut for the team.

Gilliland made seven starts for the team in 2015.

“After talking with our partners, we felt the time was right to make a move into the Cup Series,” team owner Ricky Benton said in a press release. “Getting David back on board was also key. Having a veteran driver with his experience and success on restrictor-plate tracks – with whom (crew chief Mike) Hester has familiarity – gives us a leg up as we try to make the race.”
Gilliland has made 16 starts at Daytona in the Cup Series, including seven in the Daytona 500. His best finish was third in the 2011 Daytona 500.

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