Smack dab in the middle of Thunder Road sits the old courthouse of Dawsonville, Ga., pop. 347. It occupies the center of a traffic roundabout on State Road 53, a two-lane blacktop skimming the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A sea of moonshine passed through that town square on its way down to Atlanta in days past; a dribble still does.
If you're whistling along on Thunder Road, you're likely to miss Melling Racing. It's about five miles out of town on Route 183, narrower even than State Road 53 and snaking into the Chattahoochee National Forest. At the outside edge of a sweeping turn, your eye might be caught by some junk cars gathered around a bunch of ramshackle chicken coops. On the inside of that turn, tucked down a tiny hollow, is the shop. It consists of a cinder-block building painted a pale aqua and not much bigger than the splashy 18-wheeler parked in front. There's an aluminum-sided extension stuck on one side of the building; a house trailer completes the compound. Taped to the two doors of Melling Racing's headquarters is a cardboard DO NOT ENTER sign. It's signed ERNIE. What goes on behind those doors is secret, and what comes out is a sleek red-white-and-gold Thunderbird. It's signed "The Elliotts," and it's the fastest stock car in history. So far, no one else knows why.
The Elliotts of Dawsonville are silver-haired George, 61, and his three redheaded sons: Ernie, 37, the crew chief and engine builder; Dan, 34, Ernie's assistant and the invisible one; and Bill, 29, the driver and chassis man. Counting wives, kids and "Mama" Audie Reece, 87, Bill's maternal grandmother, who was born five miles down the road, there are 12 members of the Elliott clan living in four brick houses alongside Route 183.
Young Bill started this NASCAR season as if he'd been shot out of a cannon. He set a track record of 205.114 mph in qualifying for the Daytona 500 in February and won the race by a mile—well, actually it was a bit less than a mile, but not much. In Grand National racing, where a car-length lead is considered a comfortable advantage, Elliott had held a mid-race margin that was astounding. Bill crashed on Feb. 24 at the Richmond 400, a short-track race, and then wrecked once more and cracked the fibula of his left leg during the 500-mile race at Rockingham, N.C. the following week. But two weeks later he won again, a 500-miler at Atlanta Raceway, sort of his "home" track. In May he set a stock-car record of 209.398 mph in qualifying for the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala. and won that super speedway race after falling behind by two laps because of an oil leak—earning back ground mostly under the green flag, not having it handed to him by a series of yellow caution flags. It was the fastest 500-mile race in history, with Elliott averaging 186.288 mph—11 mph faster than Buddy Baker's mark set in 1980 at the Daytona 500. In 15 races this year Bill has won seven, earned seven pole positions and set five qualifying or race-speed records. Halfway through the season he leads the point standings for the NASCAR championship by 2,306 to 2,205 over two-time champion Darrell Waltrip.
If he wins the Southern 500 on Sept. 1 at Darlington, S.C., the track they call The Lady in Black, he'll take the pot: a $1 million bonus staked by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco people for winning any three of NASCAR's four major races—Daytona, Winston, Darlington and the World 600 at Charlotte. Elliott had his first shot at the million at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend, but things just sort of fell apart under all of the pressure.
Bill is 6'1", rangy, and he speaks with a soft drawl. You can find him in many magazines leaning happily against the fender of his hot rod T-Bird, the pair of them stretched colorfully across two-page Ford ads. NASCAR fans, who voted Bill their Most Popular Driver last year, call him Big Bill, Wild Bill, Dollar Bill and Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. Bobby Allison, among others, calls him Huckleberry, for obvious reasons. He and his wife, Martha, his sweetheart from Lumpkin High who also acts as his personal secretary-bookkeeper, and their 7-year-old daughter, Starr, who did star in Victory Circle at Daytona, live across the road from the shop in an apartment in Mama Reece's basement.
If there's a stock-car family dynasty to replace the crumbled one of the Pettys, it's the Elliotts. George got into sponsoring racing cars. Fords, always, in 1962. In 1969 he even became a Ford dealer after making a bundle in the chicken business (those old coops across from the shop are his) and then in building supplies (the shop's main building had originally garaged the first of George's 30 delivery trucks). George's Ford dealership has always had the nearby town of Dahlonega as a mailing address but has been located at various times in a former schoolhouse and, currently, a skating rink.
Eldest son Ernie, after getting a business degree from North Georgia College, ran a speed-equipment shop in what now has grown to be the racing shop. George had never had the desire to be a driver himself, and Ernie and Dan had each tried and weren't all that impressed. So Ernie stayed with the engines and Dan went off to North Georgia College, leaving the keys to the family Mustang short-track race car to Bill, who was 16 at the time.
For five years the family stayed mostly with the local short tracks. George broke his son into Grand National racing in 1976 by entering him in eight races, of which Bill finished two. In '77 George bought Roger Penske's race car when Penske shut down his NASCAR team after three years of trying and just one win to show for it. For the next five years the Elliotts stretched the equipment and squeezed the dollars. Their crew consisted of a few Dawsonville boys, and a couple of times their car was a Race Fan Special—a fan could get his name painted on the car for $100. The survival plan was to enter races in which, as George says, "the field was shy." Bill sure did learn how to conserve his car, and they cracked the Top 5 two times in 65 races over those six seasons.
Elliott Racing lost $100,000 in 1981, an impossible bite out of George's Ford dealership profits, and he was ready to quit. "In situations like that, you can only let your family suffer so much," says Ernie, whose third child was born that year.
"I never really worried about not making it," says Bill, remarkably, "because I felt like the odds were against me making it anyway—at least not big-time. I'm pretty gung-ho about winning, and I take pride in what I do, but I try to look at the real world. You can become a victim of circumstances real easy in racing, and I knew that a lot of good drivers didn't make it because they'd been victimized. I knew I could be the same way. Unless you get the right break, you ain't going anywhere in this type of racing."
The right break appeared in the person of a beer-drinking millionaire Michigan auto parts manufacturer—oil pumps are his bread and butter—named Harry Melling, who bought the team. It was one of George Elliott's better business deals. "I recognized the potential of the team, and my lack of money was what was standing in the way, so I stepped aside," George says. Says Melling, "All I knew was that their attitude was good, and they were honest, and that's what I was looking for. Hard work usually moves you to the front."
Melling bought new machine tools for the shop, which is now jammed with the latest in lathes and milling machines and...secret things. After three second-place finishes in 21 starts on the Grand National circuit in 1982, Melling Racing made the entire 30-race schedule in 1983. Bill won the final race, on the Riverside, Calif. road course. It was his third road race ever. "I like a road course," he says. "They're just like the roads back home."
With Coors as the major sponsor last season, Elliott won three times. This year the team hit the pavement running, winning $661,068 in purses to date.
Now Bill is getting attention he never wanted. All sorts of people—reporters, tourists, hustlers—have been trekking through Dawsonville, pounding on the doors of the shop. "I've got a one-track mind," Bill says, by way of explaining that he can't concentrate on racing with all the fuss. That's what happened at Charlotte, where he was harried to distraction by a publicity machine that chronicled Elliott's every move as being another step toward that $1 million bonus.
Bill never knew that racing and winning meant all this. "I told Richard Petty that I didn't realize what he'd been through all these years until now," says Elliott. "You can't move without someone wanting to talk with you. At the races, every time I head for the truck to get something, it's, 'Let me get you here for just a minute; let me get you here for just a minute.' And before you know it, 30 minutes are tied up."
None of this would be so bad if Elliott were a driver who just climbs in the car and mashes the throttle and sees if he's got the horsepower and the handling to be competitive. But Elliott sets up his own chassis, and so his work load at the races is doubled.
In order to steal time with his T-Bird, Bill has taken to going to work earlier each morning. Wearing his shop uniform, he walks past the green pasture in front of Mama Reece's house and the garden where she tends her "old-timey petunias, as thick as pepper out there." There's a satellite dish in the petunia patch, so Mama can watch the races on television. "Bill's a good boy, and I want him to win, but it looks like the other drivers have got it in for him sometimes," she says. "I slap my hands and holler. 'Come on, Bill! You're gonna make it!' I get excited. Who wouldn't?"
Mama also waves her yellow bonnet at Bill from her garden most Thursday afternoons when he flies off to the races. Elliott learned to fly eight years ago, when he was just 21, and it has become a practical hobby for him. If he had the time, it would also be his escape. In addition to the six-passenger single-engine Cessna 210 that carries him to the races, he has an ultralight, and a Citabria stunt plane. A tarred gravel airstrip has recently been carved into the woods behind the shop (George owns about 1,200 acres). That spot can be reached via a jouncy rolling ride on a red dirt road. It's so private as to be sort of a secret.
But everybody wants to know the Secret: What makes the T-Bird run? Is it technical or spiritual? Animal, vegetable or mineral? Bigger than a bread box? Does it come out of a bottle? Ask three crew chiefs from other teams, and you're likely to get: "Chassis"; "Engine"; "Aerodynamics."
According to Ernie, the Secret is tall and rangy and has wavy red hair. "Bill's the biggest thing," he says. "You take a driver who's just a driver, and an equal driver who's a mechanic too, and the driver who's a mechanic will win every time."
It's apparent to all—thanks to in-car TV cameras—that Bill's chassis-tuning talent is indeed formidable. Nothing else out there handles as smoothly as that T-Bird. Watch his hands on the wheel, barely twitching as he goes through the banked turns. Now watch Cale Yarborough driving his T-Bird, the one that everybody assumed would be on top this year.
"Cale sits there and does the wheel like this all the time," says Bill, describing a spastic turn with his hands on an imaginary steering wheel. "I don't. I won't. Because to me, the driver is the one telling the car what to do. If you sit there goin' like this [more arm wrestling], that's what the car's gonna do. You let me figure out how to get a car around a racetrack, and I'll beat Cale nine times out of 10."
But that's only half the Secret, according to George. Bill's chassis is so superior that he can drive down low on the super speedways without sliding, while everyone else is in the high groove well up on the banking. "It's like he's on a string," says his father. "After 500 miles down there, he's only driven maybe 490. That's where Bill makes up his time."
But George adds that the Secret is, really, "everybody banding together." Not just family, but the crew of about 23 Dawsonville boys, only 12 of them full time. Sometimes being a team of "backyard mechanics" can mean being streamlined at the same time.
Rumor around the NASCAR pits says the Secret is a special camshaft. In order to get it made, the story goes, Melling bought a camshaft company and fired everyone but the master camshaft grinder. And even now the old craftsman toils in the empty factory, churning out cams. Rumor adds that the Elliott Thunderbird has also been in the Lockheed Corporation's wind tunnel near Atlanta nine times. Secretly.
Bill himself will say, impenetrably, that the Secret is "combinations. It's all combinations." But catch him at a weak moment, and he might admit it: It is the engine. "Ernie's been the most underrated engine builder around, for a lot of years," Bill says. And there's as much truth as brotherly pride in that statement. Here's Ernie's unmatched record: You have to go back 71 races, to March 1983, before you can find a race Elliott didn't finish because of a blown engine.
Ernie, however, won't acknowledge what millions can see on the back straight, which is a red-white-and-gold Thunderbird dusting off the likes of Yarborough and Waltrip. "I don't have an ego," he says (we're creeping up on the real Secret). "You just can't say I'm better than the other engine builders. That just wasn't the way I was raised. I guess your engine reflects your personality and the way you do things. It's just the detail."
An understatement. To find the right combination for a given track, Ernie might try 150 modifications of an engine on one of the two $40,000 dynamometers that Melling bought for the team.
Ernie isn't too crazy about outside-world interest in his secrets either, as his cardboard notices on the doors of the Dawsonville shop proclaim. The room where he builds the engines is in the back of the shop and about the dimensions of a walk-in closet. "Ernie don't usually allow nobody but him and Dan in there," says one crew member. Melling chuckles over the story about the old camshaft grinder, but admits that in order to keep their cam grind a secret, he buys cams in lots of 32 at a time, and Ernie often throws out 31.
Just before the Talladega race on May 5, NASCAR rule makers raised the Thunderbirds' roofs by half an inch, in order to slow them down, and lowered the GM cars' roofs by the same amount, to speed them up. Whereupon Elliott went 209 and T-Birds ran one-two-three; so much for inches. NASCAR tried again to tighten the field by changing the rules for the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on July 4, restricting the carburetors equally on all cars. Nevertheless Bill had the race pretty much in hand until a refueling problem forced him to make a pit stop, and he finished second. It has been suggested that NASCAR might not have changed the rules had the Elliotts' edge been less conspicuous. "Richard Petty's been preaching to us all year—scolding us—that if you've got an advantage, you don't show it," says George. "He says you shouldn't run away with it; that's not the way to do it. But that holds only if you're not legal. Feathering the throttle is what you do because you don't want to get tore down by the technical inspectors."
Ernie concurs. "You race to beat people," he says, "and to me, the more you beat 'em, the better off you are."
Ernie is flirting with the Secret now—dancing around it. It's standards. Individual ones. When Ernie is asked if it's common for an engine builder to run a powerplant through the dyno 150 times in order to find a more perfect combination, he replies, "Shoot, I don't know; I've never worked for another team." The Elliotts don't know and don't care how they do it over there in Charlotte—the stock-car mecca—where virtually all their rivals are headquartered. "They're so busy looking over each other's shoulders up there that they can't see ahead of them," says George. "I don't know what they do," says Bill, "and I hope they don't know what I do, so I really don't care what they do. They can do whatever they want to do."
Whatever happens at Darlington, $1 million or no $1 million, Bill swears that not much is going to change around Dawsonville. Bill and Martha and Starr can't see any reason for ever moving from Mama's basement. It has served just fine until now, and a whole lot of money isn't about to make it any different.