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Bill Eliott at Charlotte 2005

Photo by: Jeff Kluss/ Sports Image Times

 

Ford Racing legend Bill Elliott, 1988 Nextel Cup champion, takes over as driver of the No. 21 Ford Fusion this weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Elliott and Wood Brothers/JTG Racing co-owner Eddie Wood participated in a teleconference Tuesday afternoon during a break in testing at Rockingham. Forty of Elliott’s 44 career victories have been in a Ford, placing his second on the manufacturer’s all-time list.

BILL ELLIOTT – No. 21 Air Force Ford Fusion – THOUGHTS ON RE-JOINING FORD RACING AND RACING FOR THE WOOD BROTHERS STARTING THIS WEEKEND. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve known Len, Eddie, Leonard and all those boys for years and years and years. Early on, even, in my career, Leonard and Ernie really worked well together. Leonard was always good about keeping things kind of under his hat, but he did give Ernie a lot of pointers early on. It really helped us, especially on the reliability side of the engines. I think that was really important early on. With what they’ve done in racing, and they’ve kind of gotten themselves a little bit out of the points situation the way it is today, and we’re just trying to help them get back, and we’re just over here running around at Rockingham a little bit today to see what we can learn, and go to Charlotte this weekend.”

 

WHAT DOES IT MEANS TO BE A PART OF A LONG LINE OF VERY FAMOUS DRIVERS WHO HAVE DRIVEN THE NO. 21? “It’s an honor to be there, no doubt. My fondest memories, I was sitting in the infield in Atlanta, I think the spring of ’73, watching David Pearson in the 21 car win the race. To be able to be a part of this deal for ever how long it ends up being, a race or two or whatever, it’s a great honor from my standpoint. Most of the places I’ve been to this point, like Michael’s deal last year was a good deal, but yet it was more of try to get a program put together, and at least with Len and Eddie and the guys, it’s an established deal and hopefully we can come in and knock a few of the rough edges off – especially from my standpoint, since I haven’t been in a car since Daytona in the 150. So, that’s where I’ve got to kind of get back up to speed, and I mean it’s going to take a little bit of time to get that figured out. The main thing is, get them in the race and get it going and try to get some stuff turned around and help try to get them back in the top 35 in points.”

 

IN ADDITION TO BEING A PAST CHAMPION, YOU ARE ALSO A GREAT QUALIFIER. DO YOU THINK YOU’LL NEED TO FALL BACK ON PAST CHAMPION’S PROVISIONALS? “Charlotte’s going to be a crap shoot since I haven’t been in anything here in the last little bit. I feel like with the surface of the race track, we went over and tested a Busch car for Braun Racing a little bit – the race track is so unpredictable. And that’s the things you run into. The bad thing about [Charlotte], you practice in the middle of the afternoon and you qualify at 7-10 at night. If you draw an early number, sometimes that has been very detrimental in your qualifying effort. The temperature might not play a part, it’s being prepared – getting your preparation ready to qualify can always be a deal because you run and hour and a half, or so, and then you turn around and go right into inspection to get ready to qualify. If you’re a late number, you can work and get a little bit better then work into you’re qualifying effort, but if you’re on the first cars out then, man, you got to hustle, make some quick decisions, get it done and then go on. Another thing that’s always played a key factor in these deals is when you’re not one of the multi-car teams. If you’ve got one of your teammates that goes out earlier, you can kind of compare notes, so to speak, as qualifying goes on to see, ‘Well, I need to put a pound in the right front or right rear. I need to do this, I need to do that.’ So, it does give you some adjustability, where we’re just going to have to go in and figure it out the best we can because I haven’t been in one of those non-car of tomorrow testing deals for the 21. Like I say, it’s going to be a tough deal, but yet we’ll make the best of it. Whatever happens happens. At least we’ll get them in the show and then kind of go from there.”

 

CAN YOU COMPARE THE CHALLENGES OF A PART-TIME DRIVER VERSUS A FULL-TIME DRIVER? “It’s getting more difficult – you really can’t be part-time anything anymore. It’s just like coming over here and running today – you about need to be in a race car every day. I have kept myself going pretty good. I try to keep a pretty good workout regiment, and I’ve been running some other stuff, just keeping my hands in it in case this does come up, or whatever ended up doing as this year progressed. One thing is going to be tough, it is going into a 600-mile race, and that’ll be tough from my standpoint. But the flipside, at least it’ll be going into the coolness of the night, so that’ll make it a lot easier for the physical endurance-side, but, still, for the guys that do it every week, those guys are going to have a little bit of an edge on you, at least, right off the bat. We can get to that point, but when you go in and you start unloading and you get ready for qualifying and you work through those deals, because I hadn’t worked with these guys and it’s going to take a little bit of time to get that communication point, and you might get it in the first hour, it might take until practice on Saturday or whatever. And that’s kind of my point – sometimes this stuff is hard to work through and get everything figured out.

 

YOU ARE RACING BOTH CUP AND BUSCH THIS WEEKEND. HOW DO YOU SEE THE REST OF YOUR NASCAR SEASON UNFOLDING? ANYTHING DEFINITE WITH ANY OTHER TEAMS? “No, not really. Right now we’re taking it a step at a time, we’re going to take it a race at a time and see how things go. I had already agreed with the guys over at Braun Racing to do the 32 car a while back, at Charlotte, and then when Eddie called me and wanted me to do this deal, it’s like, ‘This is going to be a tough weekend on an old man,’ so like I said a minute ago, we’ll have to make the best of it. I’ll have to get a lot of Geritol, or something.”

WHEN DID THIS DEAL START GETTING TALKED ABOUT, AND DID YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT IT FOR A WHILE BEFORE YOU SAID YES? “Eddie called me the other week. I guess going into Darlington we spoke, and I said, ‘Whatever you guys want to do.’ We’ve got a close enough relationship over the years that if I can help out, here I am, I’ll do the best I can, and if it don’t work out we’ll go our separate ways and head on down the road. The way the sport’s changed, it’s just tough on these guys because you start out the year, you’ve got five races to get you locked in the top 35 and then every race after that tends to count, and if you have a little bit of bad luck and you knock yourself out of that top 35, then you go in the gate with a whole different agenda, which is so hard for these guys to get realigned. They’ve been around too long and meant too much to the sport not to try to give them a helping hand and help them get back to where they need to be.”

 

YOU ARE ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN, LIKE THOSE IN THE MEDIA. WHY DO YOU THINK CHEVROLET IS DOMINATING THIS YEAR, AND FORD IS STRUGGLING? “I don’t know if you can really answer that, because I think it comes back to the team and the execution and the people and how you put it all together, and between Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress, they have been able to put a nucleus of people together and make it work. Roush and the Ford stable over the years have been very strong, but yet just seems like for some reason they’ve lost a little bit or whatever – whether either it’s in the car of tomorrow or the current car or the program or everybody’s just stepped up a little different to the plate, but it does make it tough to try to come into these deals and see kind of where these guys are at and try to beat ’em because they have so strong to this point, and that’s what makes it tough on everybody else.”

 

BEING ONLY FOUR WEEKS AWAY FROM THE MICHIGAN RACE, ARE THERE PLANS FOR YOU TO RACE AT MICHIGAN ON FATHER’S DAY? YOU HOLD THE RECORD FOR MOST CONSECUTIVE VICTORIES THERE. “None right at the moment, but we’ll take it a race at a time and I’m sure we’ll know here in the next week or so where things are going to end up. Like I said, right now it’s just an honor to be back in there, even if it ends up just being for the 600, but we’ll see.”

 

ARE YOU TESTING A CAR OF TOMORROW TODAY? “Well, it’s a car of today, today.”

 

WHAT’S YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION OF IT, AND IF YOU DRIVE FOR THE WOOD BROTHERS AT DOVER, HOW DO YOU THINK IT WILL DO? “I drove the car last year with the Red Bull guys a little bit, at Michigan I ran the car, and it’s just a little bit different. You have to approach it with a little bit different mindset. With these guys who have three, four races under their belt it’s going to be a challenge to get to where we need to be. We came to Rockingham – they put some sealer on the race track and it’s made it a little bit harder to figure things out here today – but the main thing is to get back in the saddle and see if we can pick up some pointers and help them when they do go to Dover.”

 

HAVE YOU EVER WORKED WITH CREW CHIEF MICHAEL (FATBACK) McSWAIN BEFORE? “No, we never have. I’ve seen him around a lot, talked to him a lot, but never have worked together. But, I’ve got all the confidence in the world in the group and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

 

ARE YOU HAVING AS MUCH FUN AS A PART-TIME DRIVER AS MARK MARTIN SEEMS TO BE HAVING? “I think I’m having more. I’ve just been having a great time. To be able to come and go, kind of, as you please and do the things you want to do, it’s more racing on your terms. To me, where I’m at in my career, I feel like it’s coming into a situation where it’s a good situation. I’ve been in those pressure cookers over the years at points in my career and to be able to come in and have a good time is probably more important than anything, now, to have some fun and go out and enjoy racing what it’s become today and make it easy, because it’s easy enough to make it hard but if you can go out and have a good time and make it something fun and enjoyable to do – and I think that’s where Mark is today, especially where he’s gone and what he’s doing, but I think ever since I made my decision in ’03 to run a partial schedule, that was the best decision I ever made that point in time.”

 

EDDIE WOOD – co-owner, No. 21 Air Force Ford Fusion – YOU HAVE ADDED ANOTHER LEGENDARY DRIVER TO THE LONG LIST THAT’S ALREADY DRIVEN FOR THE WOOD BROTHERS. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU AND THE FAMILY? “That just makes it really special. We’ve got that big picture in our museum of the 50 Greatest Drivers in NASCAR that Mr. France and those guys came up with a few years ago, and, of course, Bill’s one of them, and I think he makes the 18th or 19th, I think maybe the 19th, one that’s actually driven that race car, my dad brought that up, and he was really proud of that. Actually, he was coming down here today, and he didn’t get to make it. Everybody’s really excited about it, and just really thank Bill for stepping in and trying to help us. That means a lot. We’ve been friends a long time over the years. When they first started, we were all younger and all that stuff and worked together on some things, and a lot of people don’t really know that. It’s just really a special deal.”

 

HOW MUCH DID THAT FRIENDSHIP PLAY INTO THIS OPTION? WOULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED WITH ANOTHER DRIVER THAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW AS WELL AS BILL? “I don’t know. I just knew Bill. I think it was last Wednesday night before Darlington and I got to thinking about it – actually Jon had said something about it a couple, three weeks ago. He said, ‘Talk to Bill,’ and I was kind of just, ‘Ah, I don’t know if he’ll be interested or not,’ and kind of went on and then he brought it up again, and, ‘I think I’ll just call him,’ and the number I had was different, so I called a really good friend of mine and got the number and called and left my name, and he called me back the next morning, and here we are.”

 

WITH MICHAEL McSWAIN STEPPING INTO THE CREW CHIEF ROLE, HAVE HE AND ERNIE COPE CHANGED SEATS? IS EVERYBODY IN POSITION NOW? “Well, actually, Fatback’s kind of been in the background all year long and looking over things, but it’s really hard to really have two people, like two cooks in the kitchen at the same time. So I actually just decided that with the changes we were making, Fatback to go ahead and do the 21, and Ernie’s actually keeping up with the Busch cars and trucks, which is really going to help a lot, because it was really stretching Fatback to the limit, keeping up with five race teams, plus the personnel and stuff he was trying to look after. So, this, to us, seems like the right way to do it. You put Fatback where he’s most comfortable, back on the box, doing the crew-chief stuff, and then Ernie is going to keep up with the Busch cars and trucks to help them make them better, and we’re already into that.”

 

HOW MUCH OF THIS IS A NO-BRAINER TO BRING IN BILL ELLIOTT, WHO HAS SIX PAST CHAMPION’S PROVISIONALS? “It actually is a no-brainer. When you go to call someone like Bill and ask that question, it was kind of hard. I said, ‘We’ve been friends a long time,’ and all that, and I just said, ‘Hey, I’m in trouble. Can you help me?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ The friendship thing – in racing, there’s a lot of stuff now, as big as it is, as much money as there is and all that that goes on and the corporate world that we sort of live in, in a respect, it gets back to relationships. And the best things that happen in racing now are relationships. A lot people really don’t see that, or know about it, but the very fact that I’m sitting here with Bill, we’re testing here, it’s a relationship thing, it’s not a business thing.”

 

IS AIR FORCE ON THE CAR THIS WEEKEND? “Yes, this is an Air Force race.”

 

HOW DOES KEN SCHRADER FIT IN WITH ALL OF THIS? IS HE STILL WITH THE TEAM OR NOT? “Yes. Yes. Before we did all this, we sat down with Schrader and Jon, because they were the two out of the Cup car, and talked to them about it and they were all for it. Like I said, Jon came up with the idea, and Schrader was 100 percent ‘go do what you’ve got to do to try to make it better and get it back in the top 35.’ It’s still early in the season, so they’ll be back later on. Everybody was good with it. It gets back to the relationship thing – everybody was ‘whatever we can do to fix the 21 or help fix it, let’s go do it,’ and that’s kind of the way it happened.”

 

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT MAKING THE TOUGH DECISIONS THAT YOU HAVE TO MAKE WHEN YOUR TEAM IS ON THAT TOP-35 BUBBLE? “Yes. You wonder why you even have one of these things. If anybody ever tries to give you a Cup team, you need to run. You don’t want that deal. Things can really be good and then when you get outside that top-35 deal, your whole world changes. You stop eating, you stop sleeping. That’s the first thing that happens to you. And you’ll dread Fridays. And when it comes time to go to the race track, the biggest problem, and everybody’s who’s outside of the top 35 is in the same situation we are, everything you think about is qualifying. You don’t think about the race, you barely even prepare for it – it’s all about qualifying, because if you can’t get in, it doesn’t matter. Once you’re in – that’s the disadvantage to having to qualify in, you use up that first hour and half getting ready to qualify, and the guys who are in the top 35, they’ll use an hour of it getting ready to race and then throw on a set of tires and do what they’ve got to do, but they’ve got an hour on you, and hour-and-15-minute jump on you, and if you do get in, it’s just hard to ever catch that amount of practice back up. So, you just got to make the decisions to – the way we’ve been doing it is to get in, it’s all about getting in. And now with Bill on board, at least we can do both and kind of be normal for a period of time.”

 

WHEN YOU MOVED TO NORTH CAROLINA FROM STUART, VIRGINIA, IT OBVIOUSLY WASN’T GOING TO BE AN OVERNIGHT TRANSITION WITH YOU RUNNING BACK IN THE TOP-10 AGAIN EVERY WEEK, BUT ARE YOU SURPRISED NOW THAT YOU’RE NOT THERE AND IN THE MIDDLE OF EVERYTHING? “We moved down to Charlotte with hopes of getting better, and that was the right move, just from the standpoint of where all the people and the stuff that you need are easily accessible. And we were doing fairly well when we were on the other side of town – we were over in Mooresville for a period of time. And then we decided to merge part of the company with ST Motorsports, which is a marketing company, which actually joined up two Busch teams and our Cup team and then we created two truck teams, and we bit off probably more than we should have at that point in time, and it’s really taken a lot of time and effort to get competitive with anything, because we’ve got so much going on. But the way we’re kind of doing it now, to separate it a little bit and have different people focus on different things, I think, is going to be a lot better for us. We’re almost like a brand-new team ourselves, so we’ve got a lot of growing pains there. That kind of led us to we are where we are, and you do what you gotta to do.”

 

THIS WAS PRETTY BIG THAT JON WOULD SUGGEST PUTTING BILL IN THE CAR BECAUSE IT TOOK HIM OUT OF THE CHARLOTTE RACE. DOES THIS AFFECT HIS CUP FUTURE AT ALL? WHAT’S HIS NEXT CUP RACE? PLUS, REALISTICALLY, ALTHOUGH THIS IS A RACE-TO-RACE DEAL, IS THE PLAN FOR BILL TO RUN THE 21 UNTIL GETS BACK IN THE TOP 35 IN POINTS? “We haven’t really talked that far ahead. We just actually, you know, ‘Will you help us?’ ‘Yep, I will,’ and we shook hands and there’s no paperwork, there’s just a handshake, like it used to be, which is kind of cool. And back to Jon giving up the race, like I said, it was his idea. We tested at Charlotte two weeks ago or whenever it was and I think we were 12th-quickest overall, but we were seventh of the guys that had to get in – which is in. But if you get an early draw over there, it’s really out of your hands, and we’ve not been very lucky on draws and stuff lately. He just said that’s what you ought to do to make sure you can get in, so that’s how it kind of got started. At the Open the other night, the qualifying speed that we had would’ve been in, in relation to the other guys, so I think we’re going to be okay and hopefully not even use any of Bill’s stuff.”

 

THIS IS ONE OF THE FEW TIMES WHEN WOOD BROTHERS RACING CAN USE ONE OF NASCAR’S RULES TO ITS ADVANTAGE. THAT’S PRETTY SLICK. “I hadn’t really looked at it that way, but I did go through all the proper channels before I got too far with it. I didn’t want to do anything that was wrong or unethical or against anybody’s rulebook or whatever. I did go through some proper channels to make sure I was doing the right thing and how to do it and all that stuff. But, this one did kind of work in our favor here. And I’ve had things they’ve done work my way before – you know, everybody complains that stuff that’s in the rule book or things that are there that doesn’t really work well for them, but that’s the only thing you ever hear about. The stuff that works right, nobody ever says anything about it.”

 
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