The transformation of Chase Elliott
DAWSONVILLE, Ga. -- So just what is it that Chase Elliott does best, already at age 18, to dazzle all of NASCAR the past two weeks, to set the siren blaring as of yore atop the Dawsonville Pool Room, drawing folks from the outlying Blue Ridge foothills into town to celebrate at midnight?
Completely, beautifully, seemingly instantaneously, somehow effortlessly.
He couldn't even remember the last time he'd been to ornery, treacherous old Darlington Raceway -- it had to be sometime when he was a little boy, with his father -- before he raced there last week. He drove it in a commanding way reminiscent of David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt, and yes, of his own father, who'd gotten one of his nicknames at Darlington -- Million Dollar Bill -- and won.
Chase was even more impressive than at Texas Motor Speedway the week before. He'd never been there at all, yet he quickly grasped the dipsy-doodle transitions onto and off the banking, and won.
Darlington might have made three in a row. He might well have looked just as precocious the week before Texas, at Fontana, Calif. -- another place he'd never been -- but not even prodigies can always avoid the mistakes of other talents rising up through the ranks, and his car was collected in the early wreck of highly publicized Dylan Kwasniewski. Elliott continued, drove back up as high as third, but his car was damaged enough that it impeded his crew's changing tires on pit stops. That dropped him back, but he finished sixth anyway.
And now he stands atop the Nationwide Series standings, as a rookie who is making his debut at every big track where the tour takes him.
"Anything over a mile I've never been old enough to go do" until this year, he says, referring to NASCAR's requirement that drivers be at least 18 to run the superspeedways.
Bill Elliott doesn't get worked up over much -- put simply, "he is not excitable," says Chase's team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Not even when Awesome Bill from Dawsonville put this north Georgia town (it was a hamlet then) on the map in 1985, winning 11 races, including the Daytona 500, and the Winston Million bonus.
Even now, Bill speaks of his son in his same soft, even tones. He knew the kid was very good, but the real precociousness began to strike him at Las Vegas on March 8, the third Nationwide race of the season.
Bill sat with the spotter up high above the grandstands. "And I was amazed at how well he did," Bill says, with rare inflection on "amazed."
"You go to California, and it's the same way. And Texas was like ..." Bill's voice trails off, searching for the words. "And he'd never been there.
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"He'd never been to those places. And you go outrun Kyle Busch [previously the undisputed dominator of Nationwide] ... and then you've got Little E, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and you outrun all those guys, and you've never been there. You've never been to the place.
"And that's what blows me away about it."
Blown away is a relative term with Awesome Bill. At Darlington, while Chase drove the race of his life -- so far -- Bill was spotted leaning up against a tool cart in the pits, expressionless, fully realizing by this point that his son "has been very adaptable."
Not just adaptable to racetracks. Adaptable to everything.
You take all that hoopla about how he is still in high school and has to do makeup work on Mondays when he returns from race weekends. Indeed, he missed his senior prom to win Darlington, but "I had a pretty good date, the Lady in Black," he said after winning at the track so nicknamed for her treachery and ferocity almost as a living thing.
The school-and-racing juggling act is no big deal -- his shrug says so as he sits at a conference table on the second floor of the building that holds both Dawsonville City Hall and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame museum.
"I think for anybody in the second semester of your senior year [he'll graduate in May], there's not a whole lot going on anyway," he says. "I am missing a lot of Thursdays and Fridays traveling. Some things are tough, making up tests and whatnot, but for the most part it's been OK."
Chase didn't grow up here. He moved here with his parents, Bill and Cindy, from the posh ski resort of Vail, Colo., 1,500 miles and a couple of cultural light years away. He attends private school in the affluent Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, 30 miles south of here, closer demographically to Vail than Dawsonville.
So he is hardly the country boy his father was 30 years ago when Bill began to win in Cup with a shoestring family team, in a car numbered 9, Chase's number now, and the same number as the highway that runs down into Atlanta, once known as the Whiskey Trail, the route the moonshine runners took.
Yet upon arrival here six years ago -- this was the place Bill Elliott knew the family needed to be if Chase was to forsake skiing and snowboarding for a motor racing career -- Chase immersed himself in his deepest roots.
By age 13 he was the best dishwasher the Dawsonville Pool Room ever had, and he waited tables where the walls are plastered with old newspaper articles that spell out the legacy of arguably the biggest little racing town in America.
They've always started their drivers young around here. Lloyd Seay, a high school friend of Chase's paternal grandfather, George Elliott, was hauling liquor by age 14, before he was old enough to get a driver's license. By 20, Seay -- who could "take a '39 Ford coupé and climb a pine tree with it," as the old-timers used to say -- was a stock car racing star before there was such a thing as NASCAR.
By 21, Seay was dead, shot in a bootlegger's quarrel in September 1941, the day after he recorded three major wins in eight days on the tour of the time. His cousin and teammate, Roy Hall, continued racing, running 'shine and generally raising hell until he was arrested in a shootout in Greensboro, N.C., and extradited to Georgia to do time for bank robbery in 1947.
They drove for Raymond Parks, who'd landed on the streets of Atlanta as a teenage runaway from these foothills and become a kingpin in moonshine, numbers-running, slot machines and finally bonded whiskey, and financed all his racing in cash.
And those were just a few of the "whiskey trippers" who barreled out of Dawsonville down Highway 9 when it was "hot with law, ever' night," one old runner once recalled.
"Those guys," says Chase, "were definitely some men back then. Those were some tough times and some hardworking folks. I have a lot of respect for that."
The Elliotts were not moonshiners, but they were every bit as immersed in the culture of cars and mechanical wizardry as the trippers were.
Gordon Pirkle is the de facto town father of Dawsonville. He owns the Dawsonville Pool Room and runs the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, with its rich display of racing and moonshine cars, including one of Lloyd Seay's Ford coupés.
The pool room is down to one table, and it is far better known for food, especially the Bully Burgers, and racing talk and memorabilia. It bustles from breakfast time throughout the day and evening.
Soon after the Elliotts moved home, "Cindy came by and said, 'Chase will probably be coming by to ask you for a job,' " Pirkle recalls. "She said, 'Bill and I have talked it over, and we want him to learn work ethic besides just working in the [racing] shop.' "
At 13 he couldn't get a driver's license, so his parents would drop him at the pool room in the mornings and he'd work through lunchtime, "and when the boys from the shop came down to eat lunch, he'd ride back with them," Pirkle says. "First day, I took him back to the sink. I said, 'Chase, if anybody has to leave early, all the dishes have to be washed up before you can leave.' I didn't think much about it. Well, about a week went by, and my help was just lovin' that little devil to death. I got paying attention. Every time he'd get a little break, back to the sink he went. He kept all the dishes washed up. The morning shift didn't have to wash no damn dishes. He didn't want them boys [the shop mechanics] to come down there and go off and leave him."
In the afternoons and evenings, "I don't know how many times I'd go up there to the shop and you'd find Chase up under one of them cars," says Pirkle. "He loved working on them cars."
Since 1983, Pirkle has sounded the siren -- locally pronounced "si-REEN" -- atop the pool room every time an Elliott has won a major race. Two years ago, after Chase began winning big in late models on short tracks, Pirkle installed a new si-REEN, taken from a Georgia State Patrol car, in anticipation of a new and stellar era around Dawsonville.
After Chase won Darlington on Friday night, "I blowed that thing 'til after midnight," Pirkle says. The si-REEN beckons people out of the countryside into town after Chase's wins. The si-REEN is so storied that media people phone in just to hear it, as Pirkle simply holds out the phone to capture the wailing for them.
"I had the law after me the first time I did it in '83," after Bill's first Cup win, Pirkle recalls. Dawson County had a sheriff and one deputy at the time. Dawsonville's population back then "was about 300," says Mayor James Grogan, who now presides over a town of 2,536. The Dawson County sheriff's office has "about 120 or so officers now."
That means the local youth no longer can "oil town," as they called it 30 years ago. Someone would distract the deputy to another part of the county, and then the local boys would pour motor oil all over the town circle around the old courthouse, come flying into town in their hot rods, and spin 360 degrees through town. Only in recent years have some local storefronts, damaged by cars slamming into them, been repaired.
In Vail, Chase was skiing and snowboarding before he was racing. But even when he raced go-karts out there, Bill began to see something, sense a desire, a familiar instinct.
"The reason we moved back," says Chase, "was because there really wasn't any other type of racing to do [around Vail] beyond go-kart racing. ... So it was kind of the only choice I had if I wanted to go racing as I grew up."
Out there and back here, "he always gave me the choice," says Chase. "He never forced it upon me."
"Go out there and have fun," Bill says he told Chase from the outset. "You're only a kid one time. Enjoy being a kid. We'll race some. You be a kid the rest of the time."
In Colorado, "we all just had a laid-back couple of years and just had fun," Chase says. "And I think in a way that was a good thing."
"I really embraced those two years," says Bill, "because we had a good time."
But he adds, "When we moved back here, things got a little more serious."
Working out of the old Elliott family compound outside Dawsonville -- Bill had worked on his own chassis himself, even in his peak years in NASCAR -- Chase first raced in youth-oriented series, and then moved into the grown-up, grassroots meat grinder of stock car racing, late models on short tracks.
Bill never really coached him, telling him only, "If you need advice, I'll try to help with advice." Bill says. "But there's no way you can tell somebody how to drive a race car. You can give them little pointers here and there, but they've got to figure it out."
That includes adapting to all sorts of tracks.
"I tried to go all the different places we could possibly go," Bill says. They raced late models at Montgomery and Mobile, Ala.; Pensacola, Fla.; Winchester and Salem, Ind.; Madison, Wis. "I tried to mix it up to where he's gone all these different places, to where you don't get in the habit of saying, 'I'm good here but I'm bad there.' "
Further, says Chase, "Dad never kept me in one [type of] car for very long."
Chase was especially stellar at Pensacola, where he won the Gulf Coast's most prestigious race, the Snowball Derby, in 2011. Construction magnate James Finch of Panama City had been a colorful and popular Cup and Nationwide team owner, and good friends with Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick.
"James had been around Pensacola and Mobile races, and the Snowball Derby," says Chase. "He had watched us race a lot. I guess he had a conversation with Mr. Hendrick ...
"I think I was in ninth grade when Dad got a phone call from Mr. Hendrick, asking us to come up [to Charlotte] and have a meeting. We flew up there one afternoon and went straight to his office and sat down and talked about what Mr. Hendrick wanted to do.
"Heck, as a freshman in high school, I didn't know what to think. It was like, 'Holy cow, this is an opportunity of a lifetime.' "
Hendrick offered them a developmental contract. But "even at that point, nothing was set in stone," says Chase. "It was just shaking hands and saying let's try to do something here."
At first, Chase raced NASCAR's steppingstone K&N Pro Series, winning at Iowa Speedway in 2012.
But it was just this past winter that the planets truly aligned. NAPA, the huge auto parts retailer, had abruptly ended what was supposed to be a long-term deal with Michael Waltrip Racing due to a race-manipulation scandal last year. Yet the very nature of NAPA's business virtually dictated the company's presence in NASCAR.
Here's how clean the Elliott family's reputation has always been in NASCAR: In 1985, when Bill was going for the Winston Million in a Ford Thunderbird, legendary team owner Junior Johnson complained that "if them Elliott boys was slipping around, getting by with something [cheating], I wouldn't mind. It's the fact that that car's legal that [ticks] me off."
The safest bet NAPA could make, after the MWR tempest, was on an Elliott. But it took Rick Hendrick to bring them together.
Hendrick couldn't be reached for comment prior to publication of this story, but Bill says: "I'm telling you, without him we'd never have gotten the NAPA deal. Without him, and JR Motorsports and Kelley [Earnhardt Miller, Dale Jr.'s sister] and Dale, they wouldn't have come back into the sport."
Didn't the Elliott name help, too?
Bill demurs. "It didn't hurt," he concedes. "We all went down and met with them, and I think with Chase's youth, and what he can bring to the table ... and that's what I see today. I've got hundreds of texts from people who followed me racing. They just have been revived. They're sitting watching Nationwide races, [people] that had just totally gotten away from it the past five or 10 years.
"And that's what NASCAR needs. They need it bad. They need this generation."
This generation includes Kyle Larson, 21, who until Chase won at Texas was the hottest new sensation in NASCAR. Larson won the Nationwide race at California and then finished second to Kyle Busch in the Cup race the next day.
"Chase does an amazing job in a race car," Larson says. "He's going to win a couple of more times this year, and hopefully, with us both being young, we're going to be racing and battling each other for the rest of our careers."
They beat and banged on each other for a few laps at Darlington, but Chase -- like his father in his youth -- coolly let the confrontation go, kept his composure, and went on to win while Larson finished sixth. Chase's crew stumbled on the final pit stop and sent him out sixth for the two-lap finish. He was in a bind. He said nothing on the radio, took a drink of water, shot to second place by the white flag, and then passed Elliott Sadler on the final lap.
About that cool: Might that be genetic?
"Absolutely," Bill says. "Absolutely.
"I think it's how you grow up, how you perceive things. He's got a good head on his shoulders to this point -- knock on wood," Bill adds, and laughs.
"As Chase has grown up, I think he has taken a lot of his father's mental makeup and intuition," Earnhardt says.
Grousers among NASCAR fans might point to Chase's first-rate equipment with JR Motorsports.
"Granted, yes, we've got good equipment," Bill concedes. "But you think Kyle Busch hasn't got good equipment? You think Kevin Harvick hasn't? You think Elliott Sadler hasn't got good equipment?"
And Chase has beaten them all, already. So there is already some public rumbling about when Chase might move up to Cup.
"We hear it," says Bill. "But I can't answer that ... I don't have that road map."
Pressed for what he would do, Bill says, "Maybe run him a few [Cup] races at some point in time. Maybe not this year, but maybe next year."
"Chase is really ahead of the game right now," says Earnhardt. "In the next 24 months, he's going to turn into something pretty awesome."