It was a delicious, double-dip of a stock car racing day: a buy-one, get-one-free deal for NASCAR fans attending the Winston Western 500 on Nov. 20, 1983, at Riverside Raceway in California.
Two immensely popular drivers shared the cheers, brightening an otherwise rainy, gloomy afternoon in the desert.
Bobby Allison finally won a season-long championship that had eluded him for two decades. And Bill Elliott at last triumphed in a race after coming ever-so-close in finishing second eight times.
It was difficult to determine which of the two was most delighted and grinning widest.
Call it a tie.
First, the Elliott story from 27 years ago.
Bill had broken into the big-time Winston Cup Series in the mid-1970s out of the North Georgia mountains as a lanky 21-year-old with a shock of wild red hair and a slow-as-molasses drawl. Not surprisingly, fans took to him almost immediately, likening him to the lovable Mark Twain character, Huckleberry Finn.
For seven seasons Elliott and his family oriented team, led by his brothers Ernie and Dan, showed up at the bigger races. Gradually, they grew competitive, and teased at victory, but checkered flags never came.
Team Elliott seemed so luckless that prior to one race at Charlotte Motor Speedway the track officials staged a promotion on behalf of Bill. Fans were invited to bring good-luck charms to the speedway for him.
The wildly varying items almost filled a dump truck. None of the voodoo dolls, rabbits feet, horseshoes, herb concoctions and mojos worked.
At least not until NASCAR’s top series headed west in ’83 for the season finale on the hilly, 2.6-mile, 9-turn Riverside road course near San Bernardino. When the 119-lap race began Elliott’s non-winning streak stood at 115 races.
Odds appeared against him snipping the string, as he was to start 10th in 42-car field, with very strong road racers ahead of him. Included were Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd and Allison.
Moreover, Waltrip, starting from the pole after qualifying at 116.782 mph in a Chevrolet, essentially needed to win to overtake Allison’s 64-point lead for the title.
However, Elliott had a touch for the twisting tracks, too. Traceable, it was said, to speeding through the nights for fun on curving mountain roads near his native Dawsonville, Ga.
As the race rolled on, interrupted by rain delays, Elliott steadily gained positions in his Ford.
Finally, he was battling Benny Parsons for third place.
Well ahead of them, Waltrip and hard-charging Tim Richmond were in a dandy duel for the lead on the 111th lap. Suddenly, Waltrip’s Chevy and the Pontiac of Richmond brushed together coming out of Turn 9 while heading toward the flagstand. The contact sent both spinning off the pavement and into the mud. Parsons and Elliott swept by as the yellow flag showed.
When the green was displayed on Lap 115 Elliott maneuvered into first place. He was riding there when rain forced another yellow on Lap 117, freezing the field through the finish.
Allison, meanwhile, was taking ninth place to Waltrip’s sixth, forging a final 47-point margin in Bobby’s favor for the coveted championship.
Now, there were two big stories unfolding simultaneously on pit road and in the garage area! What to do? How to cover them?
My longtime best motorsports media pal Steve Waid and I knew almost instantly: Divide them up.
“I’ll take Bobby, you get Bill, then we’ll swap notes!” I shouted to Steve as we sprinted toward the garage, where the drivers and their jubilant teammates had headed to get out of what now was a pounding rain.
Allison, his wife Judy, team owners Bill and Jim Gardner and team leaders Gary Nelson and Robert Yates were in tears of joy and embracing repeatedly in group hugs by the time I got to where Bobby had parked his Buick.
The race had been nerve-racking for the Charlotte-based team. Allison experienced an equalized tire, two flats and during the final few laps the fuel pickup device was fluttering – causing Bobby’s heart to flutter, too.
“This can’t be real, this can’t be real!” said a beaming Allison, then 45. “I’m so happy I hardly know what to say…
“The trouble we had today was nettlesome, but I had an inward feeling it was ours. I thank the Good Lord and a man who has inspired me very much, Pope John Paul II.
“I also thank the fans. I got a lovely note Saturday from a 90-year-old lady in Florida who said she had lit seven candles for me. And there were twin little girls who came by our pit before the race. Each of them taped a sign on our tool box. One read, ‘Good luck, Bobby, I love you.’ The other read, ‘Bobby, blow their doors OFF!’
“And my mom and dad! What supporters they are. I know my mom’s rosaries are smoking after today.”
On the eve of the race Waltrip had tried to play mind games on the DiGard team, for which he once drove.
“We’re tightening the screws on them,” declared Waltrip, noting that Allison’s crew was undecided about which gear box to use and was even considering the use of a rev limiter. “It’s just such uncertain thinking that is going to be their undoing. They’ve got to beat themselves, and I think they’re going to.”
Asked about this as he stood aglow in victory, Allison grinned widely and said, “Didn’t happen, and it’s the happiest day of my life.
“I’m also very, very happy for ol’ Bill ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Elliott. Him winning makes my winning all the sweeter.”
At the other end of the garage the Elliott entourage was just as joyful as Allison’s.
Said Elliott: “I can’t believe it. Can’t believe how things went so much in our favor. But I guess that’s fair, because they’ve gone against us so many times.
“I was very concerned at the end. The car was getting close on gas. It had to be almost out. We weren’t getting as good a gas mileage as some of the others. In fact, I ran out before my first pit stop and I could just imagine that happening again at the end and everybody passing me.
“I told Ernie on the radio for him and the other boys to pray that I could finish that last lap.”
Elliott returned the good wishes of Allison.
“I’m as proud for Bobby as can be,” said Elliott. “He’s so deserving. I hope to someday be where he is today, the champion.”
There was only one race, of course, at Riverside on Nov. 20, 1983. But it produced two exceedingly popular “new” winners.
It was a most unforgettable day…