Feature photo courtesy of Chris Graythen/Getty Images.
Just south of the Amicalola Falls in the foothills of the Appalachians sits Dawsonville, Georgia. Downtown stretches about 10 blocks along Main Street, splitting to form a circle around the historic courthouse in the middle.
Less than 3,000 people call Dawsonville home. Two of them are NASCAR drivers.
One is Bill Elliott, also known as Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. In 1998, NASCAR named him one of the sport’s 50 Greatest Drivers and in 2014 he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The other is Bill’s 21-year-old son, Chase, who will begin his third season Sunday at the Daytona 500, a possible springboard to a long career.
The Elliotts live on a plot of land previously owned by Bill’s grandfather. Both have lived in Dawsonville their entire lives. Bill never left, even at the height of his NASCAR fame, and Chase has no plans of saying goodbye to the city his family has nested in for generations.
For many small towns that house famous names, the star makes the city. In the Elliotts’ case, Dawsonville made them.
On Sunday, November 20, 1983, Gordon Pirkle turned on his satellite television to watch his neighbor.
For more than three hours, Pirkle watched Awesome Bill from Dawsonville round the racetrack from The Dawsonville Pool Room, his restaurant in the middle of downtown. Before the checkered flag was waved, a caution flag guaranteed Elliott’s first NASCAR victory. Pirkle prepared.
“Some of the boys were talking about going around the courthouse blowing horns,” Pirkle said.
That didn’t satisfy Pirkle, though.
He found a siren in storage. He had donated the siren to the local fire station, but after updates it wasn’t needed and returned to him. It had been waiting for a new purpose, and Pirkle had an idea.
He found an extension cord and set the scene. When the checkered flag was waved, Pirkle ensured all of Dawsonville knew.
Soon the siren attracted police.
“Here come the police wanting to know what was going on,” Pirkle remembered. “I said, ‘Bill Elliott won a race.’”
Pirkle didn’t recognize the officer, a new hire to the force. He accepted Pirkle’s explanation and left, but returned later.
“He pulled off and in a little bit he came back, and he said, ‘Can you get that thing to quit?’’ Pirkle recounted. “I said, “Hell no! Bill Elliott won a race, and we’re gonna celebrate!’ From that day on, every time Bill won a race, that thing sang.”
After a couple years and a handful of trouble, Pirkle mounted the siren on top of The Pool Room on a black-and-white striped poll. It lived there for the next three decades, watching over Dawsonville and sending its people winning warnings whenever Awesome Bill triumphed.
Bill Elliott raced for the last time in 2012. His siren rang for the final time in 2014 when he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Pirkle then donated it to the Hall, giving it a permanent home in Charlotte and in racing history. But that wasn’t the end of the Elliott siren.
Chase Elliott drove in the 2010 USAR Pro Cup Series at age 14. Not long after, his neighbor started sounding the siren for his wins, too.
After sending the original siren to Charlotte, Pirkle got his hands on a Georgia State Patrol car siren for Chase to continue the tradition. Now when the people of Dawsonville hear the warning, they know a different Elliott is winning.
“I had people coming out of the store fronts looking up in the sky wondering if there was a tornado or what,” Pirkle said. “Everybody knows now. If they hear that siren, they know Chase won.”
Pirkle is now the CEO of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, which naturally shares a building with the Dawsonville City Hall. He isn’t always at The Pool Room when the siren blares, but if he’s at the Hall of Fame he still does his part.
“As soon as I hear it, I put in the CD and play it out in the shopping center,” he said.
The siren’s most recent explosion came Thursday night. Chase finished first in Can-Am Duel No. 1 in Daytona 500 qualifying, becoming the first driver to win back-to-back pole positions at Daytona since Ken Schrader won three times in a row from 1988 to 1990. In case you want to get a car you can find vin here for free.
After the win, Chase’s mom Cindy Elliott asked Pirkle if he sounded the siren.
“I said, ‘Yes, loud and long,’” he said.
— Dawsonville Pool Room (@DawsonPoolRoom) February 24, 2017
Chase’s qualifying victory at Daytona in 2016 put him in an elite club. He became the sixth man in Dawsonville history to win a race at Daytona, the city’s 28th win there all time. With the accomplishment comes a reward.
In 2013, the city of Dawsonville changed the names of eight streets in the downtown area. As you coast along Main Street through the center of Dawsonville, you pass Ted Chester Street, Gober Sosebee Street, Bernard Long Street, Raymond Parks Street, Roy Hall Street, Lloyd Seay Street, Harry Melling Street, and of course Bill Elliott Street, home to The Dawsonville Pool Room.
These eight names represent men who either won a race at Daytona as a driver or owned a car or team that won a NASCAR Championship.
Soon, Chase Elliott Street will be found somewhere in the city.
“The city is all excited about this,” Pirkle said.
Before Dawsonville was known as the birthplace of stock car racing, it was the moonshine capital of the world.
With Atlanta just 60 miles south, there were plenty of thirsty customers willing to pay for the poison, and the nearby mountains provided perfect cover away from prohibition enforcers for distilleries and hangouts.
In the early 1930s, bootleggers would drive their product south to Atlanta to distribute their illicit goods. They had to avoid the attention of the authorities, but it wasn’t always possible. That’s where the speed came in.
“It was a 60-mile drive down the old 9 crooked road from here, and you went through three or four counties,” Pirkle said. “When you got close to Atlanta, the deputy sheriffs were on the lookout for them. They had to have a way to outrun.”
As bootlegging became more popular, so too did the cars. Some of the big bosses in the moonshine business created a makeshift racetrack in a cornfield and put their engines to the test.
“It was more like bragging rights, or they’d bet on which liquor guy had the fastest drivers,” Pirkle said.
Once organizers realized the races could attract paying patrons, they monetized the operation. Stock car racing was born, and the scene for a siren was set.
For many NASCAR drivers, making it means leaving their hometowns. They often opt for Charlotte, the center of the racing universe, or elsewhere for their new home. But like his father, Chase hasn’t left.
“I enjoy my time in that area,” Chase said. “That’s just kind of home. Dad never moved away from there when he was racing, so I’m going to give it a shot myself.”
Members of the community for generations, the Elliotts are exactly that: members of the community. People don’t make a fuss when they see them. They don’t ask for autographs. Cordial conversation is usually the most attention they get.
“We’re there all the time. We see people all the time,” Chase explained. “I don’t think it’s a surprise for people to see [Bill] out eating dinner. That’s his hometown. I think it’s just normal.”
The Elliotts blend in, behaving like the average people they are.
“If you didn’t know the history and know how famous they are, they’d just be regular neighbors,” Pirkle said.
As the son of a racer and resident of Dawsonville, Chase has had racing ingrained in him since he was a child.
“[My father] sparked my interest in racing and is the reason I’ve wanted to do it,” Chase said. “I just grew up around it.”
Chase was not only raised around racing, but also watched Bill race. There isn’t much of a doubt to him about if his father is one of the best to ever sit in the driver’s seat.
“I know what they had when they first started racing and how much they accomplished with very little is very impressive in my eyes,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for that.”
It’s now Chase’s turn to carry the torch for the Elliotts and Dawsonville, and he not only knows it but welcomes it.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to carry some of [Bill’s] fans,” Chase said. “You hope there’s some genuine interest in what I’m doing and not just because of his success, and I think that’s there. It’s cool and I’m proud to still live where we live and do our own thing there.”
That support will always be appreciated.
“I’ve been lucky to have grown up with some great people,” he explained. “Folks who know a lot about racing, a lot about cars, understand it, get it, but also good people away from the racetrack. I’ve learned a lot about the kind of people they are, the kind of work ethic they have. You learn a lot from people as you go along, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of good ones to lean on.”
Despite knowing the significance of a Daytona win to his hometown, Chase never set his sights on any one race. He just wants to compete.
“Growing up, I just wanted to race,” he said. “I can’t say I have one specific race or things I wanted to win more than any other. I wanted to race and that was my biggest goal.”
But the city still has a preference. When Bill won his first race, Dawsonville hosted a parade in his honor. If Chase were to bring the first Daytona 500 win back to Dawsonville since his father won his second in 1987, Dawsonville might explode.
“Oh God,” Pirkle said. “I believe if he won this race, we’d go crazy again.”
Edited by Maggie Gottlieb and Megan Smedley.