Old Man Winner
Down and nearly out in 2000, Bill Elliott, 46, is the Brickyard
champ and a title threat
There was much talk at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday
about aging NASCAR drivers. After Jimmy Spencer booted Kurt Busch
into the fence at 200 mph on Lap 36 of the Brickyard 400, their
third on-track dustup in the past year, the 23-year-old Busch
called the 45-year-old Spencer an "old, decrepit has-been" into
every microphone stuck in his face. (For good measure, he also
called him a "decrepit, old has-been.")
Then there was the guy who eventually won the race. A year and a
half ago Bill Elliott, at age 45, looked like a man who was
headed down the road to Old, Decrepit Has-beenville, or
worse--early retirement back home in Blairsville, Ga. The 1988
Winston Cup champion, Elliott had finished 21st in the points
standings in 1999 and 2000 and hadn't won a race since September
1994, at Darlington. He had spent the previous six years
struggling behind the wheel of a car he owned and that his
sponsor, McDonald's, had dropped during the 2000 campaign. Money
was so tight that crew members were sleeping on the floor at the
race shop. So he sold the team to Ray Evernham at the end of the
2000 season and took a job driving for Evernham's fledgling Dodge
In the last 18 months Elliott has won three races, including
back-to-back victories in the Pennsylvania 500 and the Brickyard,
and he is now sitting in sixth place in the title chase, only 210
points out of the top spot. "Bill went from being like, 'Man,
this is a struggle,' to where he's the guy to beat," says another
oldie-but-goodie, 45-year-old Rusty Wallace, who finished second
to Elliott on Sunday.
Elliott is as old school as they come. Growing up in Dawsonville,
Ga., he developed a penchant for colloquial syntax constructions
that would make an English teacher blanch. (After the Brickyard
he noted that by running 295 practice laps at the track two weeks
before, "I done run two races before I got here.") He flourished
in the 1980s, when drivers could more easily make a living as a
racer and an owner. But he's enjoying his renaissance working for
the New Jersey-born Evernham, 44, who made his mark as Jeff
Gordon's crew chief in the 1990s, when the sport became more
high-tech and corporate.
Elliott and Evernham seem like an odd couple, but they have one
important element in common: They can talk about cars all day
long. Evernham got to know Elliott when setting up cars for the
IROC series, and even after finding fame and fortune with Gordon
he remained in close contact with Elliott. "When you talk to a
driver you can pretty much tell if that guy is on the ball," says
Evernham. "When I was leaving to start [the Dodge operation], I'd
talk to Jeff Gordon a lot and he'd say of Bill, 'Look, you need
to get that guy.'"
So he did. Evernham called Elliott and offered him a lifeline.
"If you stay in this sport long enough, you're going to ride that
roller coaster up and down," says Elliott. "The guys who have had
the most successful careers have had stable foundations. I was
stable in the '80s doing my own deal, but then the sport got so
big I couldn't keep up. [After that] I just kept going down
different roads, and I never could put things together in the
right direction. I feel like I've had a second chance at life. I
could have walked away just about easier than I could have
It took half a year for Evernham's program to get off the ground,
but by late 2001 Elliott, Evernham and crew chief Mike Ford were
clicking. In his last 38 starts Elliott has 15 top 10 finishes.
"He hasn't lost anything," says Wallace. "He's got a crew chief
and a team that's really behind him. They're well-oiled. They're
running great. Their pit stops are fast, and Evernham's doing a
great job running the company. They're on it."
Petty Enterprises' Future
A Fittipaldi To the Rescue?
Kyle Petty is fond of saying that Petty Enterprises is auto
racing's equivalent of the New York Yankees. If that's the case,
then last year for the Pettys was the equivalent of the Yanks'
1990 season, when the most feared Bomber was Steve Balboni and
the club finished last in the American League East. With Kyle
running the business his grandfather Lee and his dad, Richard,
had built into a NASCAR powerhouse, the team's three-car stable
was awful: John Andretti finished 31st in the Winston Cup
standings, Buckshot Jones was 41st and Kyle, who failed to
qualify for 12 races, ended up 43rd.
Part of the problem was that Petty, as one of few owner-drivers
on the circuit, was wearing too many hats. So last January he
brought in veteran crew chief Robin Pemberton to serve as general
manager and handle many of the day-to-day details. "I don't have
10 jobs this year, I probably only have three or four," says
Petty. "Like any driver, I would like to have one job: driver.
But that's never going to happen for me."
Adding Pemberton, however, has paid off. Petty's 21-spot jump in
the standings, to 22nd after a 25th-place finish in the Brickyard
400, is the biggest in Winston Cup this season. Petty's top 20
finishes have increased from two in 2001 to 12 already (in 21
races) this year.
With the operation's short-term prospects looking better, Petty
has to turn his attention to the long haul. When Kyle took over
as CEO of Petty Enterprises from his father in 1999, he said that
he was going to focus primarily on building a strong team around
his son Adam, who was regarded as one of the sport's most
promising young drivers. However, on May 12, 2000, Adam was
killed during practice for a Busch Series race in New Hampshire.
Losing Adam left a void at Petty Enterprises and contributed
heavily to Kyle's miserable 2001 season. "Adam was going to be
our future, he was going to be who we were going to be 10 years
down the road," says Kyle. "His accident pretty much shut me
down, and things got away from me to some degree."
Needing a young driver to rebuild the team around, Petty hired
the 30-year-old Jones, who never finished higher than 12th and
was released in April. (Meanwhile, Andretti is 29th overall, with
only one top 10 finish.) "We started down that road with
Buckshot, and it just didn't work out," says Petty. "Long term,
we need somebody young who we can build a program around, but we
don't feel like that person is in the Winston Cup garage yet.
We're not interested in recycling a driver. We've got to go get a
That person, sources at Petty Enterprises told SI, will be
30-year-old CART driver Christian Fittipaldi, who, in addition to
racing in several Busch and perhaps ARCA events, will make an
undetermined number of Winston Cup starts in 2003, thus becoming
the circuit's first Brazilian-born driver. The talented, if
injury-prone, nephew of former Formula One champion Emerson
Fittipaldi drove F/1 cars for three years before moving to CART
in 1995, finishing as high as fifth in the points in '96.
Bringing Christian Fittipaldi onto the team is not quite on a par
with, say, the Yankees signing Jason Giambi, but it's a good
For all the talk of a youth movement in NASCAR, Bill Elliott's
victory at the Brickyard speaks to the contrary: a significant
decrease from last season in the percentage of races won by
drivers in their 20s.
AGES 2001 2002
20-29 15 (41%) 5 (24%)
30-39 10 (28%) 7 (33%)
40-49 11 (31%) 9 (43%)
The Schumacher Formula
There are few surer things in sports than a Michael Schumacher
victory in Formula One--and few reasons to believe that's going to
In 12 Formula One races this year 32-year-old Michael Schumacher
has nine wins, two seconds and a third. He clinched his fifth
championship with six races remaining. Here are five reasons for
his astounding success:
1. His Teutonic aura. With his steely gaze and air of
invincibility the German driver looks indomitable. Behind the
wheel he is fearless and seems to possess superhuman reflexes and
2. His risk-taking. After winning F/1 titles in 1994 and '95 for
Bennetton, he gave up a shot at three in a row to join what was
then a struggling Ferrari team. Five years later, he was back on
3. Ferrari's bankroll. Formula One cars have more gizmos and
goodies than Austin Powers's Shaguar, and no other team has the
resources or personnel to match Ferrari. In 2001 the car
manufacturer sank an estimated $302 million into its F/1
operation--some $15 million more than McLaren, the
4. The front-runners' edge. You're more likely to see a lead
change in a funeral procession than at an F/1 race. Schumacher
has started on the pole in four of his nine victories this season
and has qualified no worse than fourth.
5. His loyal understudy. The driver with the best chance of
beating him is Rubens Barrichello--his teammate. However,
Schumacher is the star at Ferrari, so Barrichello's job is to do
whatever he can to get the German the title. That might mean
pulling over on the final straightaway after dominating the
entire race (as he did during Schumacher's victory at the
Austrian Grand Prix in May).