DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A fan favorite who once was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver a record 16 times, Bill Elliott is accustomed to being the object of affection.
But the adulation has changed since Elliott was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year.
“It’s kind of rejuvenated everything from the standpoint of the fans and the recognition and stuff like that,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “I think it’s definitely different.
“They want you to sign things ‘Hall of Fame,’ and they bring back the old stuff. It kind of validates everything they’ve collected.”
After being inducted with Rex White, Fred Lorenzen, Wendell Scott and Joe Weatherly into the Charlotte shrine Jan. 30 (the night after his son, Chase, was announced as the 2016 replacement for Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet), Elliott has been stumping for the Hall of Fame. The 1988 series champion made a series of promotional stops last month during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, including a sitdown interview with NASCAR Talk:
NT: Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett both said they felt extra responsibility to be Hall of Fame ambassadors because each class doesn’t have five living members? Do you feel that same need to be a spokesman?
BE: Very much so. To me, it’s been important because I am still around. Some of these guys like a Rex White or Fred (Lorenzen) or some guys that were exposed through the 1950s and ‘60s era, to be able to listen to their stories and help carry that to the next generation, I think that’s important. Those guys paved the road for us and for future generations. (Telling) what their contributions were to the sport, I think that’s the legacy of the whole thing.
NT: So you agree with Richard Petty, who said he didn’t feel he should be in the first class of the Hall of Fame because everyone from the first decade of NASCAR should have been recognized before him?
BE: I agree. But I am thankful that I am able to enjoy it and understand it and be a part of it for the older generation that might be either gone or not able to enjoy it.
NT: You weren’t always comfortable in the spotlight. Is it any more comfortable now that you’re being recognized after your career?
BE: It’s fine now. Back in the early days, I worked on a car just like anybody else. We felt like if the race car run good, the rest would come. Our biggest goal was to make sure the race car ran fast. That’s what I felt like I could do best. As time goes on, now I’m kind of here and part of the show. It’s a different deal, but I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing the younger groups come up and who’s doing what. I understand racing enough to know what it’s kind of all about and the things that I enjoy about it. I still have, like Benny Parsons said, I have a passion for the sport.
NT: Your son is so comfortable and mature beyond his years talking with media …
BE: So far. (smiles) He’s done a good job.
NT: Did you work on instilling those values, or has it been natural?
BE: It’s been all pretty natural. We’ve talked to him about certain things, but he grew up in it. He understands the sport. I think he understands it better than most. He knows the things that are important. He watches the interviews after the race. He studies everything. I think he’s just very analytical in the things that he does. He’s able to put all that together. That’s been his strengths.
NT: What was it like having your Hall of Fame induction coming on the heels of his No. 24 news?
BE: I think his announcement was bigger than mine!
NT: But the events dovetailed nicely for your family?
BE: Believe me, I was as shocked as you all were, because they didn’t tell us until two days before the announcement. You’d hope something like that would happen, but for it to really come to light and finally things come together, it was like, ‘Hey man, this is an incredible week.’ It was just such an enjoyable week. It was laid back, a lot of fun, it was great to see a lot of the older guys I hadn’t seen like Bud Moore, Maurice Petty, Dale Inman. I grew up around that. They were all so much a part of your life for so long.
NT: Are you in awe of one Hall of Famer in particular?
BE: Leonard (Wood) was always kind of my hero because as hard as I worked on the car in the early days. I’ll never forget coming to Daytona, and I could watch Leonard work on his car. He could work on the motor and never raise the hood. He’d put it on jackstands, take the front tires off, and he’d get in there and change things. He’d be secretive in what he was doing. I thought, ‘Man, that was cool.’ I always enjoyed Bud, Junior (Johnson) and all those guys and listening to the stories. Dale Inman was always a cutup and into something. I just couldn’t imagine being around those guys in the 50s and 60s.
I’ve enjoyed this. It’s been a lot of fun and been very much an honor for me to be in this class. It just puts the topping on my career.