Chase Elliott has folks excited
DAWSONVILLE, Ga. -- Gordon Pirkle has rigged a new siren atop his storied Dawsonville Pool Room. He is set to sound the renewal of lore that runs deeper, richer than in any other little town in all of stock car racing.
This latest siren -- actually off an old Georgia State Patrol car -- is designated for Chase Elliott's victories.
The other one, still there though eight years silent, screamed out 44 times to the town and surrounding valley that Bill Elliott had won Cup races. It also blared when Awesome Bill from Dawsonville won poles in the most spectacular fashion ever -- such as his NASCAR record of 212.809 mph, at Talladega in 1987, which stands today.
Dawsonville has boomed in recent years, its population more than doubling between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, from 619 to 1,571, largely due to the enormous outlet mall east of town, on Georgia 400, affluent Atlanta's artery to the North Georgia mountains.
But before that, what Dawsonville did best was race. And before that, make moonshine. And those endeavors remain the heart and soul of the town.
Chase Elliott at age 15 is under developmental contract to Hendrick Motorsports. He and father Bill run their racing operation out of the old Elliott family shop west of town, with the best equipment.
When Lloyd Seay was 15 and Dawsonville was a hamlet, he was already a veteran "tripper," local lingo for moonshine runner. That was in 1935, when, across the Blue Ridge mountains in North Carolina, Junior Johnson was still a toddler.
Boys around here started hauling liquor as soon as they could reach the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals.
That was developmental racing in the Depression era, for the likes of Seay -- who was Chase Elliott's seventh cousin, as best Gordon Pirkle can determine the genealogy -- and Roy Hall and Gober Sosebee.
The Flock brothers -- Bob, Fonty and Tim -- were from Atlanta but spent much of their time here, hauling out of the huge central liquor collection point on the Chastain farm.
They ran it down "the Whiskey Trail," Georgia Highway 9, into Atlanta. (Thus Bill Elliott's number in his prime, and Chase Elliot's number today: 9.)
It was the best training a driver could get, for every night when the revenuers were out, "It was a race to win or go to prison," as Junior Johnson has said of his moonshine career.
At 18, about the age Chase Elliott will be upon his almost-certain arrival in NASCAR's big time, Lloyd Seay officially went racing.
(By the way, up here in Dawson County, the name is pronounced "See." Just one county to the south, in Forsyth, the Seays pronounce their name "Say" -- perhaps to separate themselves from the bootlegging branch of the family.)
Seay and Roy Hall, a cousin also schooled on the Whiskey Trail, raced for Raymond Dawson Parks, who'd run away from Dawson County at age 14, landed on the streets of Atlanta, made his stake running 'shine and gone on to become a slot-machine, numbers-running and legal-liquor kingpin.
"The Racing Team," as they called themselves, set out in 1938, when there was no NASCAR -- wouldn't be for another decade.
They showed a young Bill France Sr. how it should be done if he wanted to start a league. In battered, mud-caked fields of cars, Parks's stood out -- bright, clean, freshly painted, reliable and fast under the wizardry of Parks's chief mechanic in Atlanta, Red Vogt.
There had been no driver like Seay, ever, anywhere, and there has not been one since.
"I heard Lloyd say he could take a '39 Ford coupe and climb a pine tree," an old Georgia bootlegger once told me. "I wouldn't doubt it."
The late George Elliott, Bill's father, knew even as a high school classmate that Seay could do things with a car that seemed super human. He could make the car an appendage of himself -- much like Dale Earnhardt would do many years later, except that Seay drove with only one hand, his right, while the left was propped up in the driver's side window.
Seay was reckoned by many -- not the least of which was NASCAR founder France -- to be the greatest stock car driver there ever was.
When I was young and France was in his emeritus years, I asked him whom he deemed the best ever. In his Daytona Beach office, he vocalized his mental files, through Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison were in their primes then.
But he settled on "a fella from up in Georgia. Fella by the name of Lloyd Seay."
The old man noted how, on the beach course at Daytona in the 1930s and early '40s, Seay would go through the North Turn with the car turned up on the right-side wheels, the left side up in the air.
"He was bad to do that at Lakewood, too, coming off that No. 4 turn," Gordon Pirkle said the other day, meaning Atlanta's old Lakewood Speedway, a 1-mile dirt oval which in the 1930s and '40s was called "the Indy of the South."
"Can you imagine?" Pirkle still marveled. "Taking a stock car and running it like a motorcycle, on two wheels?"
And it wasn't a rare tactic for Seay.
"There's picture after picture after picture," Pirkle said, walking among several of them in the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame he founded, and which stands today as a bright, modern mother lode of Georgia racing hardware and memorabilia. The first car as you walk through the door is, of course, one of Seay's Ford coupes.
Seay might have been NASCAR's first powerfully charismatic figure, far ahead of Fireball Roberts or Richard Petty, long before Dale Earnhardt except for the morning of Sept. 2, 1941.
Seay had just won three straight national-level races in an eight day period. First on the beach at Daytona, he led all 50 laps. Then he won at High Point, N.C. Then he, Hall and Parks had barreled down the highways at 100 mph-plus in Parks's new Cadillac to make Atlanta in time for Seay to win the "National Stock Car Championship" at Lakewood on Labor Day.
The next morning, Seay probably had at least $450 in his pocket, considering that "Raymond's deal with his drivers was that he kept the trophies and they kept all the money," according to Pirkle.
But Seay was murdered over "less than a dollar," Pirkle reckons.
Seay was shaken awake in his bed by a furious cousin, Woodrow Anderson, who believed Seay had cheated him on payment for a load of sugar for making moonshine. They headed out to see "Aunt Monnie" Anderson, a schoolteacher, to let her calculate the correct numbers.
But on the way they stopped at Grover Anderson's farm, where Woodrow also lived. In the front yard, Woodrow pulled a .32-caliber revolver and shot Seay through the heart. Seay's brother, Jim, was wounded in the neck, but Lloyd fell instantly dead.
He was 21. In his obituary, the Atlanta Journal estimated that he had entered only about 60 major races, "winning more than half of them."
Gober Sosebee's widow, Vaudell, now 86, saw Seay's last race and in the process met her future husband that afternoon in '41.
"Lloyd Seay was going with my cousin, Vivian Crain," she recalled the other day. "I don't know why, but they came over and wanted me to go to the races with them at Lakewood. I was in my teens. I'd never been to a race like that. I'd seen some run around the pastures and things like that, you know."
Pasture racing in North Georgia was, many believe, the very cornerstone of stock car racing. Moonshine bosses would gather late at night, and bet big money on who had the fastest cars and trippers.
Not long ago, Vaudell Sosebee went over to Gresham Motorsports Park, about 50 miles east of here, to see Chase Elliott race.
"See, I knew the whole family," she says, meaning not just brothers Bill, Ernie and Dan but their parents, George and Mildred, and Mildred's mother, "Granny Reece" to the family and "Miss Audie" to the other locals.
It is on Miss Audie's side of the family that Chase Elliott is related to Lloyd Seay.
"Chase was just like an old pro," Vaudell Sosebee says. "He was great."
But, standing on the shoulders of the titans of these mountains, down through the decades, Chase remains ultra-humble.
"He was in the pool room the other day," Pirkle said, referring to the place where little pool is shot -- mostly people come in for the racing lore and the renowned Bully Burgers. "I said, 'Three races, three wins this year -- you're doing good, Chase.'
"He said, 'Na, I'm not doing that good. I've run four races this year.' "
The one Chase lost was one he dominated, the Rattler 250 at South Alabama Motor Speedway earlier this month. He was penalized late in the race for going through the infield grass -- a la Earnhardt's "Pass in the Grass" on Chase's father in 1987 at Charlotte -- and spinning out two other drivers.
Chase is the first beneficiary of NASCAR's lowering of the minimum age for its touring series to 15. His scheduled debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, was rained out last weekend and has been rescheduled for this Saturday.
Pirkle and friends plan to be there, in the same tradition that would virtually empty out Dawsonville in those days before World War II when Hall and Seay starred on the beach at Daytona.
Chase is juggling racing with a private school in North Georgia -- and learning fast at the buttoned-down style of public relations Rick Hendrick requires.
Ask Chase about his career map, as I did recently at Bristol, and he'll tell you it's about "what Mr. Hendrick wants to do, and Dad as well I support whatever they decide 100 percent."
Mighty buttoned-down, modern-day NASCAR-speak, for a youngster who comes from this little society that turned Roy Hall loose on the world.
Once, after a win at Daytona, Hall was asked if he'd be back for the next beach race.
"Sure," he said. "if I'm still alive by then."
And with Hall, at that time, staying alive was indeed a day to day proposition. He ran wild after Seay's death, rode out the war running 'shine, got into a gun battle with police in Greensboro, N.C., and was extradited to Georgia to serve time for robbing a bank at Jefferson -- the town where Gresham Motorsports Park is now located.
Out of prison, Hall returned to racing but suffered a career-ending head injury in 1949, and died in a nursing home in 1994.
Raymond Parks, after combat in the Battle of the Bulge, came home and helped Big Bill France found NASCAR. It was Red Vogt who came up with the name, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and its acronym.
Parks and his post-war driver Red Byron won the very first NASCAR race, on the beach at Daytona in 1948, and won the first season championship for "Strictly Stock" (now Sprint Cup) cars in '49.
Parks loaned money when Big Bill didn't have it. Parks provided pace cars and the brightest fleet of race cars NASCAR had. Parks, in many ways, did more to launch NASCAR than France did.
Junior Johnson has called Raymond Parks "the Rick Hendrick of his time." I say no, Rick Hendrick is the Raymond Parks of his time.
Parks died last year, at age 94. His absence from the new NASCAR Hall of Fame through the first two classes of inductees remains the greatest travesty of the Hall's beginnings. But he is hallowed here, in his beloved North Georgia mountains and the valley surrounding Dawsonville.
The brightest sports marketing expert I know believes that "legacy drivers," from traditional racing families, could revitalize interest in NASCAR -- and that Chase Elliott just might be the key.
That is because Chase isn't just an Elliott, but springs from an almost apostolic lineage that predated -- and sired -- NASCAR itself.
Not long before Miss Audie Reece died, I asked her whether she could remember the first liquor cars in Dawson County.
"Liquor CARS?" she huffed. "Honey, when I was a young woman, I could sit on my front porch of a evenin' and hear the men hollering, cussing the mules, bringing the liquor out of the hollows on wagons."
Years later came the cars. And years after that, the trippers took the cars down to Atlanta and Daytona and raced them.
That is how long, how deep, how rich, Chase Elliott's heritage is.
How will he stack up? We don't know yet, because he has yet to drive Lloyd Seay's '39 Ford out of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame and climb a pine tree with it.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
MORE RACING HEADLINES
- Kurt Busch testifies, says ex refused to leave
- Wallace gets Xfinity ride with Roush Fenway
- Sprint to end NASCAR sponsorship after '16
- NASCAR driver Vickers undergoes heart surgery