By Bob Christian
If not for light spilling out from the solitary hangar on Elliott Field, the crowd would have been standing in almost total darkness, and that would have suited them just fine as they were there to welcome home new local hero, NASCAR driver Chase Elliott.
In his 99th Cup Series race, Elliott drove under the checkered flag to secure his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory on Sunday at Go Bowling at the Glen in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Elliott, 22, was greeted back home as he stepped off a plane in Dawsonville later that night.
“It was really last minute,” said Christie Moore, president of the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce. “We found out he was coming home tonight, and we wanted to make sure the community had the chance to welcome him home and celebrate his victory.”
Over 100 people got the message, spread by Moore on Facebook, as the crowd swelled to its peak around 10 p.m. Sunday. A local collection of families and friends, everybody was eager to be a part of yet another piece of Dawsonville’s legendary racing history.
“We found out only an hour ago, and immediately woke up the kids and headed this way,” said county resident Harris Georgia. “My wife knows him through her work, and we wanted to make sure he knew we were happy for him.”
Around 10:30 p.m., a piercing whistle, the kind used to call home dogs and children from the deep woods, instantly silenced the crowd, who were instructed to move off the runway “so as not to get hit by the plane.”
A moment later, an almost giddy voice cried “They’re here!” and the crowd lit up with cell phones and cameras at the ready.
Another whistle, and more shouted instructions, before a cheer erupted from the crowd as the Citation CJ1, piloted by Chase’s equally famous father, Bill Elliot, taxied out of the darkness under an arcing jet of water blasting from a Dawson County fire truck. It was a truly heartfelt greeting.
Once again, cheers erupted and flashbulbs and spotlights flared all around as the young man stepped onto the asphalt. A reporter from Fox News was quick to get his reaction to the excited crowd.
“I didn’t know I knew this many people,” Chase said as he looked around and smiled.
“It’s because we love Chase. It’s as simple as that,” said Glenda Brandt, who runs the front desk at Dawson County High School. “Most of us out here remember him when he was little.”
“We raised the little boy,” interjected Deborah Hood, the former operations manager of Elliott Racing.
“I remember playing matchbox cars with him on the office floor,” said Hood, launching into a story about a young Elliott that involved pit crews, and changing race conditions, but ended with Chase winning the race in a dramatic fashion. The story drew a lot of laughter, and bore a remarkable similarity to the race at Watkins Glen.
One of only two road courses featured in the Monster Energy NASCAR cup series (the other being Sonoma where Elliott finished 5th), Watkins Glen International is a 2.454 -mile circuit featuring eight turns that run clockwise, the opposite direction of a traditional oval track.
Elliott led the race for the final 32 laps, finishing with the most laps led, but he was pushed hard by last year’s winner Martin Truex Jr. Ultimately, with two turns remaining, Truex ran out of fuel and Elliott was able to pull away to win the race by a monstrous 7.560 seconds.
The combination of the checkered flag, and laps led moved Elliott four spots in the Monster Energy Race for the Cup standings. He now sits comfortably in 11th with four races remaining until the beginning of the round of 16.
Former NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, Chase Elliott’s father, was a spotter for the race at Watkins Glen.
“We have been in that position so many times, and you just never know how it’s going to turn out until that victory lap,” he said. “You just have to keep your emotions in check.”
After a brief set of interviews, Elliott threw himself wholeheartedly into mingling with the families and fans that had come out so late at night to see him. He shook hands, signed autographs and took pictures with everybody who came his way.
When asked if he ever considered how important his moment, this first win, was going to be to the people of Dawsonville, Elliott was grounded as ever.
“While it is all happening? No, not really, to be honest,” he said. “But when it all settles down, and you get a chance to look over the crowd, it’s a good feeling to see so many people.”