THE 1989 SPRING RACE at Darlington was important to me. I was a sports copy editor at the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, and, frankly, I wanted to write again. I believe it did catapult me to being a NASCAR writer.
Sports editor Ken Burger sent me to Darlington, and I wrote a feature each day. On Friday, I saw an out-of-uniform Bill Elliott standing around the infield. I walked over to get his attention, but he wouldn't turn around. His PR lady came over and asked if they could help me. I told her I'd like to ask Bill if he thought he could still win despite a broken wrist (he did it a month or so earlier at Daytona).
She said that he'd been asked similar questions before, but she asked him to talk to me. He turned around and looked little like the friendly Awesome Bill I'd seen on TV. He started out "Let me put it to you this way...," and went into a tirade about perceptions, reality, racing at Darlington and various other subjects. I had a pretty good memory back then, nearly perfect, so I "taped" the first couple of minutes.
He lost steam and actually wound up shaking hands with me and wishing me well. I don't know if he ever answered the question.
It's funny in retrospect. A few years later, we were at Darlington again, and the race was being rain delayed. I needed to talk to Elliott's car owner, Junior Elliott, for a program story, so I went to the No. 11 hauler, diving from one overhang to the next to avoid the rain. I got to the truck; Elliott saw me, got up and walked away. I turned to a crewman there and asked, "Is Junior around?" The guy had just seen Elliott snub me, and he laughed. He knew I wasn't interested in talking to Elliott.
Frankly, Elliott was a tough man to talk to, unless you had a TV camera in your arms.
Anyway, Elliott had an up-and-down race, but he wound up a solid fifth. He wouldn't talk to me after the race -- no big surprise -- but I got a nice story. As I put it, he finished the race a little closer to being Awesome Bill again.
At least on the track.