by darren reese
BRISTOL - There's no question that over the past decade or so, NASCAR has expanded drastically beyond its southern roots. Whether that's good or bad, different people have different opinions.
Bill Elliott got a glimpse of how the sport had changed when he made a trip to Chicagoland Speedway not long after the track had brought stock car racing's top series to the major Chicago metropolitan market in the early 2000's.
The 1988 Winston Cup Champion and 16-time Most Popular Driver was driving down a back road after the race, when painted on a piece of plywood, he saw a sign that read, "Rednecks go home."
Elliott laughed when he recalled that story Wednesday during a visit to Bristol Motor Speedway to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of his one and only victory at BMS.
He raced in an era when NASCAR was still growing on tracks in small towns from Virginia to Tennessee, North Carolina to Alabama.
Elliott was one of the drivers who helped lay the foundation for what the sport has become.
He spent Wednesday conjuring up memories from his heyday as a driver, and reflecting on just how much stock car racing has changed since.
"I think about how hard that era was," Elliott said. "You didn't go anywhere and buy all the parts you needed to build a car. You had to hand make stuff. It was so time-consuming."
"We only had five or six cars. You had one (for each kind of track) and you kind of had to scrap something together for a backup car and hoped you never had to pull it off the truck. It's such a different world today. You look around at all the technology and stuff me have (today), it's just so different."
Also different is Bristol, itself.
In the late 1980's, the track seated about 35,000. Many of them sat on grass berms in the turns and concrete slabs on the backstretch. The surface was made of asphalt. Team haulers had to park in a lot outside the track.
Fast forward to present day, the behemoth now holds 145,000, making it the fourth-largest sports' venue in the United States. Fans can sit in lavish skyboxes. The racing surface is made of concrete. Haulers now line up in perfect precision in the infield.
"Just to see all the improvements and everything they did here, that's huge," Elliott noted.
"I just love this place. There's so many nice people. The fans are so gracious. They all wat you to be here. They want to be a part of this event. I think that's what has made it such an attraction throughout the years."
Indeed, Bristol thrived as many other tracks in the region lost their NASCAR races as the sport grew. No longer are places like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham stops on the schedule.
Elliott misses a lot of those former tracks, that got left behind in the cultural expansion.
"I still say Martinsvile, Wilkesboro, Bristol, Basvville, a lot of those little towns (we raced), they just embrace you," he said.. "I had a lot of fun in those places."
He always had fun at Bristol, and finally broke through to victory lane in the spring of 1988. The win came in his 52nd career start on a short track.
Elliott led for 113 laps that day until he was spun out by Geoff Bodine on lap 493. Elliott fought back to take the lead on lap 498 and held off Mark Martin by two car lengths to take the chekered flag.
"All I had in my mind was to beat Geoff," Elliott remembered. "Whatever it took, if I had to turn him or whatever. I was determined to beat him."
That win helped propell Elliott to the 1988 Winston Cup championship.
He went on to win 44 career races. He finished runner-up in the Bristol fall race that same year but never won at the track again.
Still, he finished his BMS career with 14 top ten finishes.
He last raced at the track in the spring of 2011, finishing 31st in a Phoenix Racing ride.
Elliott was behind the wheel in two races in 2012 - at Talledega and Daytona. He currently has no plans to run a Sprint Cup Series race this year.
"The way I look at it, if I keep doing it then I am taking away from somebody else," Elliott said. "There are just no opportunities."
And that's the biggest change Elliott has seen in the sport since he was at the peak of his career during that 1988 season - the finiancial committments it takes to compete at racing's highest level.
"A parent will come up and ask me how to get into racing," Elliott said. "I say, 'First off, you better have a truck load of money', or 'You better go win the lottery'."
"You can go down to the sporting good store and buy the best stuff and go play with your kid evey afternoon in the year, playing baseball, football, basketball. But you buy a race car, you spend 15 or 20 grand and you've just got started."
"The generration that's coming today, they either have money or they've got sponsorship. It's just hard to find. That's the thing I've seen the last number of years, the way the sport has changed and the evelotion. Good, bad or indifferent? I don't know, but that's just kind of where we're head it.