By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Bill Elliott has done it all on the racetrack.
A NASCAR veteran of over 35 years, Elliott has achieved numerous victories on the track, including a 1988 Winston Cup Series championship and a pair of wins at the Daytona 500.
Elliott was the first NASCAR driver to win a million-dollar bonus -- leading to Elliott's nickname, "Million Dollar Bill" -- and the Dawsonville, Ga., native became one of the most popular faces in motorsports. In fact, Elliott was voted the National Motorsports Press Association's "Most Popular Driver" a record 16 times.
Elliott said his popularity was due to a combination of factors, including a strong family bond that helped build the foundation of his fan base. He also said that he and his brothers were viewed as a rare breed in auto racing at the time, which helped attract loyal followers.
"We came in at a time that Ford was kind of off the radar, we were just a group of kids out of nowhere who came in that kind of turned the sport upside down at that point in time," Elliott said. "I think [it was] that 'David and Goliath' kind of deal. We were anti-establishment, so to speak, and I think all of fans took that to heart."
Still, Elliott has been surprised by just how popular he remains in the auto racing world, and his appointment as this year's Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival's co-sports marshal has brought a sense of awe to the longtime NASCAR driver.
"To be able to be here is kind of overwhelming. It's like ... this is a whole different atmosphere because it's kind of off the norm of what you're used to doing," Elliott said before the Wells Fargo Sports Breakfast at the Winchester Moose Lodge on Saturday morning. "Over the years you're more sponsor-related or more doing things from that side than doing parades and stuff like that. I'll be interested to see what my answer is at the end of the day once I experience everything that is going on and what it's all about."
Elliott said it's amazing how social media has impacted the way fans follow their favorite sports icons, and he counted his son, Chase, among those that seem to endlessly indulge themselves with anything and everything related to sports.
Chase Elliott is well on his way to following in his father's footsteps, as the 17-year-old is currently a member of the Hendrick Motorsports racing team and competes in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
"He's got a heckuva resume to be 17 years old, with the races he's won and what he's done," Bill Elliott said. "We'll see where it goes. Right now he's got a good opportunity being involved with Hendrick. He's still got a lot of growing to do, but I feel confident he can do it."
As for the 57-year-old Elliott -- who has been in semi-retirement for some time -- his days behind the wheel of a racecar are numbered.
"I'm still kind of looking at a thing or two, but it's getting close," Elliott said of his retirement. "I'm to the point now that there's just nothing out there that you can really want. I'll give you an example. Last year I drove the Turner car at Daytona for the Wal-Mart deal. After getting out of that thing I wouldn't get in anything else."
Elliott was joined as co-sports marshal by NFL Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, an outstanding defensive back who was drafted 10th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1987 draft. Woodson played with the Steelers until the 1996 season before bouncing from San Francisco, to Baltimore and eventually to Oakland.
Woodson, who currently lives in California, said it was nice to be back on the East Coast as part of the Apple Blossom festivities.
"I live on the West Coast, so it's always good to come back to the heart of the country," Woodson said. "California is like living in another country, so it's good to come back to America."
Woodson was a member of the Baltimore Ravens team that won the organization's first Super Bowl in 2000. Woodson said he was happy to see Ray Lewis -- a former teammate of Woodson -- win a Super Bowl in his final NFL season, but that the Ravens will have their work cut out for them as they look to repeat.
"I think their real coaching will come into play this year, because when you lose a Ray Lewis, you lose an Ed Reed, it's hard to replace those guys," Woodson said. "They're younger on the offensive line, you lose Anquan Boldin after the Super Bowl. That's what happens, though, when you win the Super Bowl. Teams are going to come in and try to take them away from you -- they want a piece from that. So it's hard to rebuild from that."
Since his retirement from football in 2003, Woodson has served as a football analyst for several television networks, but he said his future is probably in radio broadcasting.
"I've been doing a lot more radio than anything else. I like radio ... I can come in sweats, talk for three hours and then I can leave," Woodson said. "I don't have to be in a suit and tie to talk sports. I really enjoy it."
Woodson said the Apple Blossom Festival reminds him of a similar celebration that is held every year in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind., only on a much grander scale.
"Every community has some type of festival every year, but this is a bigger, probably better festival than most because they put so much into it," Woodson said. "It's always great to see, because it really is what makes America what it is. Every little town has it's own little way of doing things, and it's great to come and see it."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org