The hottest thing on wheels these days is a narrow, melon-faced boy from Dawsonville, Ga., named Bill Elliott, who has all the other stock car drivers right where he wants them -- in his rear view mirror. Twice this year he set track records running in qualifying heats: 205.114 mph at Daytona, and 209.338 at Talladega, Ala., the fastest speed ever by a stock car. Elliott is not simply beating the competition, he is, as they say in the body shop, blowing their doors off.
"I surely do thai-nk I have a psychological advai-ntage," Elliott says, his Southern accent so thick that it makes Jimmy Carter sound like Alistair Cooke. "They're thai-nking they're done beat before we even get there."
He grinned. Straight up and down, with all that red hair he looked like a cherry lollypop.
"I like that."
By winning at Daytona and Talladega he already has claimed two of the four Crown Jewels of stock car racing. Should he win at Charlotte on May 26, or at Darlington, S.C., on Sept. 1, Elliott would collect the $1 million bonus offered by tour sponsor Winston to any driver who wins three of the four. That would make him the first stock car driver to win more than $1 million prize money in a year. Already, Elliott has won four of nine races this season, including three in a row on the mile-or-longer superspeedways. Should he win at Dover, Del., on Sunday, he'd become the third stock car driver, and the first since 1973, to win four consecutive superspeedway races. Elliott's sheer, shimmering speed has sent all those King Richards, Cales and Darrells back to their garages muttering.
"We'll keep trying as hard as we can," Junior Johnson said recently. "But I don't see how we're gonna catch him."
He's too fast.
Driving a T-Bird. Having fun, fun, fun.
Wave goodbye to them old boys, Billy.
"In Daytona," Elliott was saying, "the biggest thing that worried me about qualifying was, would the car stay on the race track? Would it start to fly?"
Had it gone airborne, Elliott wouldn't have had a choice but to go with it.
"You just ride," he said, smiling.
Where, and how, you stop is just a guess.
Elliott shrugged. "You deal with things as they come along."
But it stayed on the track, past 205 mph at Daytona, past 209 at Talladega.
"I felt like the car was runnin' pretty quick. How quick, I didn't know. I never run 209 before I did it at Talladega. Had no idea I was runnin' it . . . They say 200's the magic number, but it don't feel any different than 199. You don't know when you're there; there's no speedometer to look at.
"It's just like you get out here on the expressway," he explains, "and you start out runnin' 55 miles an hour. Then you speed up to 85, you know? And it really seems fast for about the first five minutes. But then after that you adapt to it. You wouldn't realize you were runnin' 85 unless you saw other cars out there, and you passed 'em up. At really high speeds it just feels like you become more of a passenger than a driver, because now the car's doing basically what it wants to do instead of what you want it to do." Looking across a table, Elliott says, "You just run on the ragged edge, no matter how fast that is."
Ragged edge. Elliott says the two words like they were one: raggededge. In the soft, unassuming way he speaks, he makes it sound like a peaceful place to be. Raggededge. Just another day at a terrifying office.
"You ride as fast as the car is capable of making the turns. You reach that point, and that's how fast you run," he says. "It's not a number, it's a feel." Calmly, he nods his head as if to say, "Trust me on this . . . You get on the ragged edge, and you get used to it."
There's no certain speed he's looking to run.
"Just one number higher than the last time."
Two-ten. Two-fifteen. Two-twenty.
How fast is too fast?
"Whenever the car don't make it."
Elliott is 29. Married. With a daughter. They're living, of all places, in the basement of his grandmother's house. "Why not? I'm never home." His wife doesn't seem to mind. "I guess I'll know she does when I come back and find the lock's been changed on the door." He doesn't look old enough to be 29. He looks 19. Like one of those kids you'd see working evenings at a Burger King just off the Interstate, trying to make enough gas and spending money to blow on out of there for a little while and really have a good time.
The first time little Billy Elliott got behind the wheel he was 9 years old. By 13, he was driving a truck, hauling building material. By the time he actually got a driver's license he could rebuild an engine as easy as he could pour water.
"You gotta understand," Elliott says, "where I'm from, the car was it. I mean, the car was the thing you had. You spend the whole day Saturday getting the car cleaned up, to go driving around on Sunday. Polishing the wheels. Doing every little thing. And these were old cars, too. Like in the late '60s you had '57 Fords, like that."
To this day, he prefers a '69 Mustang.
Red paint. Black vinyl.
A drive-in, make-out machine.
He started in stocks, not Indy cars, because growing up in the Southeast, kids who want to see how quick they can run are thinking about racing Richard Petty, not Bobby Unser. And now Bill Elliott knows how quick he can run. Which is two or three steps ahead of the others and pretty damned quick indeed.