By: Mike Raita, Executive Director of IMHOF Museum
As the International Motorsports Hall of Fame gets ready to entertain race fans headed to the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on the last weekend of April, I want to share with you one of my best memories of Talladega’s spring race; a memory that I am privileged to relive every day in my job as the IMHOF museum’s executive director.
As a television sports anchor and reporter in the Birmingham market for 27 years, my first in-person Talladega experience came in July of 1989 while covering the Diehard 500. However, four years before that is when I became captivated by the racing at the world’s fastest speedway.
In May of 1985, I was working in Columbus, Ohio as a sports anchor and reporter. Columbus wasn’t exactly a hotbed for stock car racing, but there was something about the sport, about the personalities of the drivers, that drew me in, and so every Sunday, stock car racing would be a part of my sportscast.
As the Winston Cup Series rolled into Talladega in May of ‘85, Bill Elliott had already won three races, including the first of the four races that made up the “Winston Million.” If a driver won three of those four races – the Daytona 500, Winston 500, Coke 600 and Southern 500 – he would win $1 million.
Keeping tabs on the race from my desk in the newsroom, about 127 miles into the 500-mile race, and Elliott in third place, smoke erupted from his No. 9 Ford. A problem with the oil pump relegated him to 26th place, just 2.03 seconds from falling two laps behind.
Never does the entire field finish a race at Talladega, and the 1985 Winston 500 was no different. Due in part to attrition, Elliott was 12th by Lap 101, but still a lap down. However, his Ford was turning laps at a blistering 204-205 mph and on Lap 145, Elliott took the lead for good and cruised to victory by 1.72 seconds – a lifetime at Talladega. Elliott made up more than five miles without the benefit of a caution flag. His victory is considered by many to be the greatest comeback in NASCAR history.
Two races later, in Charlotte, Bill Elliott would fail to clinch the “Winston Million” when a mechanical problem caused him to finish 18th in the Coke 600. But in September, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville became the first of two men to ever claim the $1 million prize when he won the Southern 500.
The number 9 Ford that Elliott drove to his 1985 win is featured prominently in the museum at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. In 2015, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of his historic comeback, Million Dollar Bill was back at Talladega Superspeedway turning hot laps in that very same car.