Throughout his career, Bill Elliott, driver of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, has seen the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway evolve into a much different challenge for drivers and crews than it once was. His first start in the race, then known as the World 600, was in 1976.
At that point, the then-20-year-old newcomer had made just three starts in a well-worn Ford Torino that his father had purchased for about $5,000. Going into the 600 that year, Elliott’s longest stretch in a superspeedway race had been 32 laps at Rockingham, as two engine failures and a broken driveshaft had taken him out early in his first three appearances on NASCAR’s elite circuit. But things went much better at Charlotte. “We were running pretty good and the motor blew up,” Elliott said. Like many a car back in the day, Elliott’s Ford, driven earlier in its racing life by Richie Panch, made it past the 500-mile mark, but broke in the final 100. Still, he had run well enough to finish 23rd, ahead of three drivers who were running at the finish.
The big winner that day, like many other days in that era, was David Pearson in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Mercury. He led 230 laps, but had to weave his way through a late-race crash to take the win over Richard Petty, the only other driver on the lead lap. Pearson, however, had to share the headlines with Janet Guthrie, the Indy car driver who was lured south at the last minute by the speedway’s promoter, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler and became the 11th female to race in NASCAR’s top division.
One of the main recollections Elliott had from that day about his future team was that he was impressed by their hauler. “It was a cab-over Ford with a ramp on the back for the race car,” he said, adding that it would be several years before he came to know Glen and Leonard Wood and the rest of the Stuart, Va.-based team.
Elliott, like his blue No. 9 Torino and like many of his fellow drivers, was pretty used up after his first 600. The next day, when he arrived at the former elementary school north of Dawsonville, Ga. that served as the team’s race shop, his father’s small Ford dealership and a salvage yard, he was so sore he never even got out of his pick-up truck. He simply pulled into the yard, rolled down the window and made some small talk, then eased on down the road. “It was pretty tough,” Elliott recalled. “I wasn’t used to running those races.” Elliott pointed out that when he first started racing in the series now known as Sprint Cup, the overall lap speeds were slower than today, which made for more time inside a hot race car. In 1976, Pearson turned a lap at 159.132 miles per hour in the Wood Brothers Mercury to win the pole at Charlotte. Last year’s pole speed was 188.475 mph.
Elliott said that today’s races, with their higher speeds, place a different demand on the driver and car. “It’s physically harder today because you’re running the corners so much harder,” Elliott said, adding that the changes inside the car to improve driver comfort have helped tremendously. But he’s also better prepared, even at age 54, thanks to a rigorous workout program and to his years of experience. “I’m more seasoned today,” he said. “It’s not that difficult.” His cars are well prepared too. The Wood Brothers Ford has had just one mechanical failure at Charlotte, including the 600 and the 500-miler later in the year, since 1991.
Elliott said he looks at an additional 100 miles at Charlotte as more of an advantage than a challenge. “I enjoy the endurance type of racing better than the shorter races,” he said. “I think the extra 100 miles is a benefit with my style of driving.” He’s also encouraged that he’ll be running the same Fusion he drove in his last two starts, at Texas Motor Speedway last month and last Saturday at Charlotte in the Sprint Showdown. He said his David Hyder-led crew can take what the team learned at Texas and in the Showdown and continue to improve the car. “I don’t know what to expect in qualifying, but I think we’ll be good in the race,” he said.