The memory of Chase Elliott scoring his big Late Model victory at North Wilkesboro over Labor Day weekend is still fresh in my mind. It stirred a much older but indelible memory from Labor Day weekend 25 years ago in 1985; his father Bill Elliott winning the Winston Million at Darlington.
That particular season was a special one for NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Some significant money and attention was flowing in the sport.
The 1980s saw a decade of exponential growth and exposure. It was still in a day where ‘Is the race on TV this weekend?” was asked on Fridays. But more and more races were being broadcast live flag-to-flag with each passing turn of the calendar.
A huge leap in prize money offered occurred in 1985. The first All Star race, dubbed ‘The Winston,’ was staged with a $200,000 winner’s share. The Winston Million Bonus was organized paying $100,000 to any driver winning two out of four designated races. The Daytona 500, The Winston 500 at Talladega, The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and The Southern 500. Win three out of four and the jackpot was one million dollars.
To put these programs in perspective The Series champion had a $150,000 reward. Terry Labonte, the 1984 titlist, took in around $700,000 for the entire season, after the post-season awards. Which was a record at the time. The Indianapolis 500 paid out roughly $500,000 to win. Yes, the 1985 NASCAR Cup money was eye opening to say the least.
Bill Elliott started the season on a tear, dominating superspeedway action. He trounced the field at Daytona in February, a live CBS broadcast. He came from almost two laps down, under green, to win at Talladega, which was tape-delayed one week and edited down by NBC. This set up the Million Dollar run a few weeks later at Charlotte.
Elliott encountered some brake problems in the 600, which was aired live by a regional cable network. For the rest of the country, no dice. Buy a ticket or hope your local news carried the highlights. But major sporting outlets that didn’t always give auto racing the time of day covered the story heading into the race.
This left the entire summer to anticipate Darlington’s Southern 500. Elliott’s prowess on tracks a mile and over increased. The countdown to the Winston Million was on. And the best part… it was on live television.
A good portion of the summer races was on ESPN and the Labor Day holiday was targeted as a big deal. This kind of money and story were not thrown around carelessly. Elliott had a South Carolina police escort for the weekend because of the crowd of onlookers and media wanting a piece of his attention. ESPN even had to be granted special permission to interview Elliott during the Saturday Sportsman, now Nationwide, Series broadcast.
Well we all know how the race turned out. Despite strong challenges from Cale Yarborough, Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt, ‘Awesome Bill’ won the Southern 500 and one million dollars. The roar of the grandstand crowd drowned out the roar of the race engines as the checkered flag waved over his red Thunderbird.
The sports reports that ignored auto racing led with Elliott’s story. Sports Illustrated put Elliott on the cover the following issue. NASCAR had taken another one of its milestone steps to becoming recognized nationally.
Now on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Labor Day weekend Million-Dollar Victory, Bill Elliott was guiding the Wood Brothers team car to a 23rd place finish in Atlanta. About four hours to the north Chase Elliott was winning a landmark race of his own.
The reopening of North Wilkesboro Speedway had nothing to do with NASCAR. And probably will not be documented as a major advancement in stock car racing development, like the 1985 Southern 500.
But the fans at North Wilkesboro in 2010 felt they were seeing something just as special as the fans in Darlington in 1985. And the Elliott family can claim their parts of both special memories.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts “Motorweek Live” Thursdays at 9pm ET. Join his special guest NASCAR Canadian Series driver Anthony Simone Thursday at 9pm ET on www.racersreunionradio.com)