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I have to admit, my interest in auto racing has dimmed with each passing year to the point that I rarely watch it unless it’s a major event. Even then, it’s more background noise or an option on the second or third television for something to check on when the main event is on a commercial break.
But yesterday’s race where Chase Elliott won the championship was pretty cool.
I say this for reasons that have nothing to do with racing. When Chase opened his visor on the cool-down lap and you could see the look in his eyes, it reminded me of a conversation with his father 35 years ago, and echos a story I tell all my young friends when they tell me it's too late in life for them to keep pursuing their dreams.
It was a hot August day in 1985 when I was sitting on the inside retaining wall of the pits at Martinsville Speedway, waiting for a fairly grumpy Bill Elliott to come talk to me. I was the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin, and it should be noted that Elliott had previously always been one of the nicest guys in stock car racing. The next year, in fact, he would return to being the nicest guy on the circuit, and even mentioned when I was doing an interview with him in 1986 that he was sorry how he’d been the previous year.
That’s because in 1985, Bill Elliott transitioned from genuine nice guy to the face of NASCAR for the season. He won 11 races and 11 poles. Winston sponsored the series and had developed a promotion called the Winston Million for winning three races, and Bill would go from being “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” to “Million Dollar Bill” after eventually winning the third at Darlington. But that day, Bill was testing in Martinsville, trying to get every point possible in his pursuit of the season’s championship.
It was on that day, I got to see firsthand what fame can do to you. It’s not like Bill was an unknown by any means, and before the season, he was like just about all the drivers on the circuit: Friendly, down to earth, a straight shooter.
He was not a Darrell Waltrip with a gift of gab that would go on forever, and given the choice of being in front of a camera or having an iced cold Coke in the Dawsonville pool room, would always choose the pool room. He never, however, made you feel like you were bothering him. It was one of the great appeals of the sport, and I consider myself lucky to have had the chance to cover racing back then when the people around it were so real.
But he was a pain that day. The pressure of chasing the Winston Million had gotten to him. It was hot, the things he was testing didn’t seem to be working, and the last thing he wanted to do was talk to a sportswriter he barely knew. He started at 10 AM, gave me about 90 seconds of time, then said that was all he could do and if I wanted anything else, I could just wait all day and maybe there’d be some other time later.
That’s what I did. I sat in 90-degree temps until about 4 PM. Martinsville Speedway at the time had some of the greatest people on earth working there, including PR guru Dick Thompson and Owner Clay Earles. They knew what was going on and someone would drop by with a cold drink every other hour. Bill would come over and essentially say “one more question” and throughout the afternoon, I may have gotten a dozen words out of him. It was just enough for the story I had to write about Bill and the Winston Million, but it was a forgettable story and a forgettable interview. It was just something that needed to be written.
During the course of these gruff interchanges, I suggested to Bill that winning the Winston Million might be a great early birthday present, since he would be turning 30 a month after the Darlington Race. I also mentioned I’d turn 30 the following July, so we both were becoming old men.
He did not smile.
But he did go on to win Darlington, win the million, and be only the second NASCAR driver at the time to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His testing didn’t seem to matter, as he would finish 17th a month later in the Goody’s 500, 33 laps behind winner Dale Earnhardt. He may have won 11 races and the Winston Million, but he also finished 31st in the final race at Riverside, finishing second to Darrell Waltrip for the season championship by 101 points.
Three years later, he would win the championship. 10 years later, however, is where the story takes a turn.
I drove home from that relatively fruitless interview with a lot of thoughts on my mind. I was tired of being a sportswriter, working long hours and being paid relatively little. A year later I would leave the profession, go back to school, get an MBA, and enter the world of sales and marketing. Turns out Bill had some changes coming up for him in life too. In 1990 he and his wife Martha would get divorced and in 1992, he would remarry.
Then came 1995.
In November, Bill’s new wife would give birth to a son. They would name him Chase, and we all know how that turned out. But six months earlier, another child was born to a single mom in North Carolina, and no one could have anticipated how that event would turn out.
At the time, my wife and I had been trying to start a family. Medical issues prevented it, and we were about to give up on ever being a Mom and Dad. But this child, without us knowing it at the time, would end up becoming the love of our lives. A year later, we stood in front of a judge and happily heard she was now a Scarangella. Forever.
So on a hot August afternoon long ago, two guys bemoaned how old they were because they’d both soon be turning 30. Both thought they knew where life was taking them. And both didn’t have a clue what changes were on the horizon.
On New Year’s Eve of 1995, I sat on the sofa with a little baby, watched Virginia Tech beat Texas in the Sugar Bowl and thought “I never saw any of this coming.” While I doubt Awesome Bill from Dawsonville watched the Tech game, he was probably doing everything else I was and admitting to himself he never saw any of this coming either.
So to my 20-something young friends who keep telling me they’re too old or it’s too late to pursue a dream, I direct you to August of 1985. One guy went from lowly sportswriter to successful sales executive and the father of the greatest daughter there could ever be on this planet.
The other went from frustrated driver trying in vain to win a title, to not only winning a Cup Championship, but also becoming the father of a Cup Championship driver.
So never give up.
You just never know how the story will end.