Chase Elliott passes father Bill — as it’s meant to be

Bill Elliott (No. 9) and Chase Elliott (No. 94) race during a heat race Saturday, July 17, 2021, during the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tenn. (Mike Arning/True Speed PR)
Caption
Bill Elliott (No. 9) and Chase Elliott (No. 94) race during a heat race Saturday, July 17, 2021, during the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tenn. (Mike Arning/True Speed PR)

Credit: True Speed PR

NASHVILLE — Sometimes an auto race is more than just another car fight. On a rare night at a classic but tired southern track when the personalities and their rides all align, why, a metaphor for one of life’s great truths just might pop up through the cracks in the asphalt.

Fathers of grown sons know how this goes. The old man takes the lead and holds it just as long as nature will allow. Holds on proudly, but with a progressively weaker grip. And, inevitably, as it should be, as it must be, the son will pass him.

And there you have the story as told Saturday night by NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and his likewise leadfooted son Chase, in 77 laps.

Matched in a race for only the second time in their lives, Bill led for more than half the night at the half-mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Against all reason, he led. He’s 65 now, 40 years his son’s senior. “The reflexes are a little different than when I was 25,” Bill said a few days before the race. “I think in my mind I can do it, but the body says a little different.”

There was the old lion running out front again, holding off seven other challengers in the final of a six-race series (called SRX for Superstar Racing Experience) concocted by another NASCAR legend, Tony Stewart. It threw together big names from the past and from different styles of racing in like-prepared cars. With a couple fresh faces thrown in each race. Chase took up one of those spots Saturday, even as the defending NASCAR Cup champion had a race to run in New Hampshire the next afternoon. Well off the pace in that one, the Foxwoods Resort Casino 310, Chase finished 18th Sunday evening.

Chase’s car owner at his real job was more than understanding about the cramped schedule. “What Rick Hendrick said –—how can I say no to a kid wanting to race his dad — that made me completely emotional,” Bill said. “It put such a different spin on the whole concept of the night.”

Chase Elliott (background) and Bill Elliott look on during practice prior to the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience event Saturday, July 17, 2021, at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tenn. (Mike Arning/True Speed PR)
Caption
Chase Elliott (background) and Bill Elliott look on during practice prior to the Camping World Superstar Racing Experience event Saturday, July 17, 2021, at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tenn. (Mike Arning/True Speed PR)

Credit: True Speed PR

Credit: True Speed PR

And after two heat races running in the old man’s fumes — for a few laps pulling side-by-side but never nosing to the lead — and spending much of the feature in the same position, Chase was impressed.

“I thought dang it, he looks pretty good and being aggressive, and I was liking it,” Chase said later. “I haven’t seen him be that aggressive in a long time. It was a lot of fun.”

Bill hadn’t run worth spit in the previous five races of this series. He was doubting himself, doubting his car and had even banged up a wrist in wrecking out of one race. But now he had a car that suited him and a little emotional nitrous oxide to give him a further boost.

“(Chase) was a lot of inspiration,” he said.

Before we get to the conclusion — spoiler alert, the young one wins in the end — a little about the Elliotts.

Bill and his brothers started the family racing tradition up in Dawsonville. It was initially a humble, low budget operation. Everyone got their hands dirty. And everyone grazed on racing’s grass roots.

Bill Elliott was very comfortable Saturday at a place where they’ve raced since almost from the start of internal combustion — first race on the site was 1904. A place where the rust fights for dominance of the grandstand covering, a place abandoned by NASCAR in the mid-1980s, the kind of place where the third turn wears the sponsorship of Ms. Kelli’s Karaoke — “Where you are the star.”

The 15,000 or so fans who filled the bare metal bleachers were also very comfortable with both the Elliotts. Both men have reigned as NASCAR’s most popular driver, as voted by the fans. And this was just the show these people had paid to see.

A winner of 44 NASCAR races and a series championship, Bill doesn’t stutter a bit when he calls his son the better driver. “Hell yeah, I know he is,” he said. Chase has the one championship and 13 NASCAR victories going for him.

Bill also raised an only son who shares a passion for all kinds of racing, no matter the scale. Having raced midget cars in the Midwest early in the week and then Saturday’s special race at a place where he won a big late model race as a teenager, Chase is a fine and respectful keeper of the Elliott heritage.

Bill also has noted how much more comfortable his son has become with the Elliott name and the success of his father.

“I think early on he fought being my kid,” Bill said last week. “That was a little bit of a hard nut for him to get through because everybody was trying to compare him to me. It’s a whole different era, whole different everything. After he won his first cup race, I saw a difference and then last year after he won the championship, I saw a greater difference in how he’s proven himself and carved his own path.

And as a racer in his own right, Chase Elliott was going to spot an opening and roar through it when presented one by the old man. Saturday may have been the most honest race between the two. Chase doesn’t really count the other time, a late model race in Opp, Ala., in 2013, when he talked dad into joining him on the track in an ill-prepared backup car. Chase won that day, Bill finished fourth.

This time on a re-start with 23 laps of the 77-lap race remaining, Bill slid up the track going into the first turn, allowing Chase to pass down low. He kept the lead to the end, while Bill would finish third, behind Stewart.

Chase would later laugh at the memory of his father once “just wearing me out about making sure my tires were worked in for a restart here.” And now it was his father had been guilty of not sufficiently getting his tires right during caution laps and lost valuable grip on the restart.

“To have a chance to race dad and with us both pushing hard, those are moments I’ll cherish forever,” Chase said. “I couldn’t have scripted that any better.”

The son had passed the father. And the father was jubilant. He can count years as well as he does laps. And he knows victories now aren’t always measured by who finishes first.

“I’m a man on Medicare and I’m just trying to keep up with these young kids,” Bill said with a wide smile.

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