Chase Elliott keeping busy schedule
It is May 14, 2010, a sunny but windy day at Rockingham Speedway.
A group of racers are standing on the concrete RV parking area that overlooks the backstretch. They are motorsports veterans. Between them they have won in everything from NASCAR to IndyCar to World of Outlaws.
They are watching the heavy, high-horsepower machines of the ASA Late Model Series -- now Sunoco National Series -- hammer by and roll into the suddenly rising high banks of Turn 3. Car after car lifts out of the throttle at exactly the same spot. Car after car runs the same line. Whenever anyone dares to do differently, they end up wiggling, braking and squeamishly tire-squealing their way through the sandblasted asphalt corner.
Then the No. 9 car blows by. Its engine stays at full song longer than any other, and the Mustang dives deeper into the corner than any other. But instead of losing control or nerve, the driver stays locked in, and so does his ride. It diamond-cuts its way through the turn -- zip-zip-zip -- and vanishes as the throttle picks back up and launches into Turn 4.
"Damn," Bobby Allison announces to the group of spectators as they start to laugh at what they've just seen. "You can't teach that. You're born with that somewhere beneath your beltline. Just like his daddy was."
The next day, that car leads 100 laps of a 100-lap race. As is customary, the driver's name is engraved into the granite rock out front. His daddy's name has been chiseled four times. But this is his first time. And the first time for a 14-year-old.
Two years later, Chase Elliott, now a grizzled old man of 16, is one busy dude.
On Thursday night he will compete in two events at Richmond International Raceway. First, as part of his day job, he'll be in the field for Round 3 of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season, where he is second in the points standings. Later that night he will compete in Denny Hamlin's Short Track Showdown, gunning for his 29th career Late Model victory.
On Friday morning he will be back in class, entering the homestretch of his sophomore year of high school. That afternoon he'll jet off to Salem, Ind., to prep for Sunday's ARCA start. Back on March 10 he started second, led 22 laps and finished 10th in Mobile, Ala., his ARCA debut.
"It's definitely a lot to juggle, but education is important, in class and on the track," he says, quick to thank his teachers and school administrators for working around his racing schedule. "We've all got to put in our time, you know?"
The comment is simple and matter-of-factly funny. It is also trimmed with a north Georgia lilt that is all too familiar to any longtime race fan. A dialect that -- like his willingness to drive so deep into the corner -- he inherited from his father, future NASCAR Hall of Famer "Awesome" Bill Elliott.
No doubt that DNA helped Chase grab the eye of Rick Hendrick, who one year ago signed the then-15-year-old to a multiyear developmental deal, this during an era when team owners are backing off the once trendy teenager contracts. Just as there is no doubt that his father helped broker the deal, there is certainly no doubt that rivals always will see that as an unfair advantage.
"I'm sure he's heard a little about it," says Hendrick, who, it must be noted, also signed Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson when they were relative unknowns. "But Chase, he's wise beyond his years. That kind of stuff isn't going to bother him."
True to form, the kid sweats none of it.
"People do bring him up a lot," the younger Elliott says of his dad and silver-spoon accusations. "But no, it doesn't bother me. I think there's always going to be guys I'm running against who think that. I'm proud of who I am and what my dad has done."
"I am very fortunate to have good equipment and a good team," Elliott says. "But they aren't in the car with me. Neither is my dad. What happens on the track is up to me. If I do what I should out there, that other stuff takes care of itself."
"He's right," his father adds. "Me or any other dad can give their kid all the advice we want. But it's like anything else in life. Once they're out there on their own, how they do is up to them."
He's not alone when it comes to speedway bloodlines. The K&N Pro Series East (think Double-A baseball) is packed with familiar surnames. At Richmond on Thursday night, Elliott will race alongside Ryan Blaney, son of Sprint Cup driver and World of Outlaws champion Dave, and Corey LaJoie, son of two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champ Randy. They are joined frequently by Brandon McReynolds, son of crew chief legend-turned-TV analyst Larry, and Coleman Pressley, son of former NASCAR racer Robert. And not so long ago, Junior Johnson's son Robert and Richard Childress' grandson Ty Dillon were among the ranks.
The result is a one very fast, very unofficial fraternity.
"We have all kind of grown up together," the younger Elliott said. "We still are. It's sort of like my other group of classmates. We have a good time racing and talking about racing. If there's a real benefit to having grown up around all this, it's being able to talk with people. The other young guys, but also the older guys. They've been real good about giving advice, to all of us young guys coming up."
To follow in their fathers' tire tracks, those young guys are climbing a decidedly old-school ladder. The K&N Pro Series East schedule is a trip through NASCAR's roots, racing at places such as Bristol Motor Speedway, Greenville-Pickens Speedway and Bowman Gray Stadium. Each visit is a trip down memory lane for the entire Elliott family. OK, maybe not the entire family.
"I wasn't around for a lot of what my dad did," Chase says with a laugh. He was born in 1995, a full decade after his father's legendary Million Dollar Bill season and seven years after the elder Elliott's Winston Cup title. But Chase was around for Awesome Bill's career second wind and burst of four wins that came from 2001 to '03 to bring his total to 44. "But it's cool going to places with so much history and having people tell me their memories of Dad and our family."
Now he hopes to give them new Elliott memories to talk about. He's already won races at motorsports temples such as the North Wilkesboro Speedway, Hickory Motor Speedway, Winchester, Ind., and Rockingham. On Thursday night he'll look to add Richmond, where in 1992, Bill grabbed one of his two career Cup series short-track wins. And Chase will have two cracks at it.
Then Friday morning he'll be back in his other classroom, prepping for final exams. In June he'll move up to North Carolina for the summer so he can be on the Hendrick Motorsports campus every day, soaking up all the knowledge he can.
One day he might be racing out of HMS as a Sprint Cup Series driver, the heir to a seat left by a retiring Gordon or Johnson. But for now, he's content to move through the ranks at his own pace.
"Like I said, it's a lot to juggle," he said. "Being a racer and being a teenager. But it's so much fun. It's all I ever wanted to do. It's awesome."
Of course that's the word he'd use.