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NASCAR’s fastest, most popular driver visits with fans

Austin King, 7, of Vicksburg checks out the autograph he got from Bill Elliott while his cousin, 14-year-old Kelsea Hearn, gets a huggy signed by the NASCAR star.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[11/8/01]NASCAR’s fastest and most popular driver made a pit stop in Vicksburg Wednesday.

Bill Elliott, who holds the record for the fastest-recorded time in a stock car and has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver by the sport’s fans 15 of the last 17 years, met fans and signed autographs for two hours at the Pemberton Plaza Kroger.

The appearance was part of the Coca-Cola “Wall of Speed” exhibit, which includes a NASCAR simulator for fans.

“It’s a lot better environment than a racetrack. You go to a lot of different areas and sometimes you meet people that don’t have the opportunity to make it to a race,” said Elliott, who won the Winston Cup championship in 1988. “To come out on these deals, it’s a better opportunity to be yourself, rather than tied to the pressures of week-in, week-out racing. Sometimes I don’t think people understand how much pressure we’re under to perform week-in and week-out.”

About 200 people turned out to meet Elliott. Most fans simply said hello and got trading cars, shirts or other memorabilia autographed, but a few asked probing questions.

“I asked him how do you go to the bathroom?” said 10-year-old Vicksburg resident Austin Palmer. “He said you don’t eat a lot before the race … .”

Finding Victory Lane has been a bigger problem for Elliott in recent years. He has won 40 races in his 25-year career, but no points races since 1994. This year has been better, with six top-10 finishes, but Elliott said he would still be glad when it was over.

“I was really getting pleased around July, August and September with our performance, then the last five or six weeks have really been a struggle. It seems like every bit of bad luck we could have, we’ve had it. It’s just been goofy stuff,” Elliott said. “The last several weeks has been a grind … I think the guys are getting tired.

“I guess NASCAR made the best decision they could about going to New Hampshire on (Nov. 23), but it sure made a hardship on a lot of people. There’s going to be a lot of testy folks that weekend.”

Elliott, who set the NASCAR speed record at Talladega in 1987 before the introduction of speed-robbing restrictor plates also said a new aerodynamics package being introduced by NASCAR for next year’s races will help drivers avoid some of the multi-car wrecks that Talladega and Daytona have become notorious for.

“I feel like they’ll be a plus for us … To me, there needs to be a compromise because you’ve got to be able to satisfy the race fans, but then you’ve got to make a good environment for the drivers,” Elliott said, adding that he wasn’t one of the many drivers who stormed the NASCAR trailer after a huge wreck on the last lap of the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Oct. 21.

“Well, I started that way, but there was such a line that I couldn’t get in,” he said with a laugh.