NASCAR stock-car racing took a major step toward becoming a mainstream American sport on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 1, 1985, when Bill Elliott earned a $1 million bonus for winning the Southern 500 at legendary Darlington Raceway.
The bonus money, posted by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and known as the Winston Million, was a publicity tool that would reward any driver who could win three of NASCAR’s four biggest races in a single season.
Elliott won the first two — the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 — and went to Charlotte in May with a shot at the $1 million prize. But a brake problem in the 600 relegated him to an 18th-place finish, setting the stage for a dramatic Labor Day weekend in Darlington, S.C.
State troopers were brought in to guard Elliott during the days leading up to the 36th annual Southern 500 and the garage stalls on either side of his No. 9 Coors Ford were left empty. The press was not permitted near Elliott until he was ready for a formal press conference.
“I just hope our pit stall is not close enough to that circus that we’ll get sawdust on our car,” Darrell Waltrip joked about the unusual atmosphere.
Any number of times during the highly competitive race, a few inches more and Elliott, who started from the pole, would have been a spectator. His closest call came on lap 319 when Dale Earnhardt did a 300-degree spin in front of Elliott while the two raced for second behind Cale Yarborough.
“I had my eyes closed,” Elliott said. “I thought Dale was going up against the wall, and I went low. He came down the track and it was close.”
Then, Elliott was on Yarbrough’s rear bumper on lap 324 of the 367-lap race when a power-steering problem caused smoke to pour from under the No. 28 Chevrolet.
That’s when Elliott took the lead for the fourth and final time while Yarborough pitted under the caution flag and his crew clamped off the power-steering lines.
In his NSSN race report, Benny Phillips wrote: “It would have been easier for Yarborough to wrestle a bear. He put up a gallant battle to beat Elliott in the final laps, but came up a few car lengths short.”
The official margin of victory was two seconds.
Elliott’s team, owned by Michigan businessman Harry Melling, earned a total of $1,053,725 for its afternoon’s work and the victory landed Elliott on the cover of Sports Illustrated.