By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Neither father nor son can remember a time when Chase Elliott wanted to be anything other than a race car driver.
The little boy spent his early years at the race track watching “Awesome Bill” win races deep into his 40s. One of Chase’s earliest memories was the 2002 victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His uncles worked on cars and engines, and so much time was spent in the Dawsonville, Ga., shop, that Chase never dreamed of doing anything but following in the footsteps of the 1988 NASCAR champion and 16-time most popular driver.
“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to do anything else,” Chase said. “Who doesn’t want to be like their Dad?”
He certainly wasn’t destined to be a student, crying himself sick every morning as he tried to get out of going to school.
“I didn’t think we’d ever get him through third grade. He hated it so bad,” Bill Elliott recalled.
But it’s funny how life changes, when commitment and desire become so overwhelming that attitudes adjust and tasks become more bearable. Chase wanted to race, but his parents insisted life wouldn’t be all fun and games at the track.
“What we tell him is ‘Right now, school is the most important part. The racing can go away in a heartbeat,’” Bill Elliott said. “Anything can take it away. So it’s always been ‘Get your education.’ Chase is in a good school, and he’s done a very good job of keeping his grades. He needs just a little prod now and then, but we work closely with the principals and teachers for them to understand what he needs to do. He’s been very good about it.”
So good that the 17-year-old is spending the summer before his senior year getting a taste of racing at NASCAR’s national level. A tweak to the age requirements this year opened the gate for drivers as young as 16 to compete in the Truck Series on ovals a mile or shorter in length and on road courses. The previous age limit was 18.
It’s allowed Chase to put together a partial Truck Series schedule this year in a joint effort between Hendrick Motorsports, where Chase is the first developmental driver the organization has had in six years, and Turner Scott Motorsports.
He heads to Iowa Speedway this weekend for his fourth Truck Series race of the year and a legitimate shot at picking up his first victory. In his previous three races, Elliott finished sixth, fifth and fourth.
And in ARCA, which this year allowed 17-year-olds to drive at both Pocono Raceway and Kentucky Speedway after passing an approval test, Chase won his series debut at Pocono last month. He followed it with a fourth-place finish at Road America.
“He just surprises me every time I watch him,” said Rick Hendrick. “The maturity he shows — most young guys with an opportunity, they wreck a bunch of stuff trying to figure out how to impress people. They are fast and have talent, but they don’t know how to race.
“Chase has really impressed me with how smooth he is. He doesn’t get rattled. At Dover, he got a speeding penalty and didn’t get rattled. He went back out there and drove it back to the front and finished fourth. And I’ve really been impressed with how buttoned up he’s been, how polished he is and how respectful he is of the team and the equipment.”
Hendrick credits Bill and Cindy Elliott with raising their son correctly, and Bill’s coaching helps Chase understand the importance of preserving his equipment.
In typical Bill Elliott style, he downplays his role.
“He’s a teenager. You can’t tell him anything — he listens to a little bit, maybe with half an ear,” said Elliott, before softening his stance. “For the most part, he gets it. He’s got a pretty good head on his shoulders. This is all up to him. If he wants to race, that’s fine. If he don’t, that’s fine, too. But he’s got to go on and make it for himself.
“You get him to a point and then from then on, performance and driving, has to continue on its own. It’s up to him and circumstances.”
Getting to this point has come from hard work and the lessons Chase has learned alongside his father and small crew in their Georgia shop. He understands the hours of labor it requires to get him to the track, and in having grown up inside the sport, Chase has had his fair share of role models.
He considers himself a fan of Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, and has paid attention to the way media-savvy Carl Edwards carries himself.
“More than anything, just being around the sport, you see guys come and go,” Chase said. “I see some guys who go about it in an awesome way and couldn’t do a better job, and I try to take from that. There’s a lot to be learned from watching it looking inside.”
Bill Elliott said his son is something of a NASCAR junkie and watches every minute of television coverage possible, from the pre-race show all the way through Victory Lane celebrations. He sees his son emulating five-time NASCAR champion Johnson in how he presents himself.
“All his life he’s been around grown-up people, and he seems very mature in what he does,” Bill said. “He seems to have a good drive about him as far as motivation to get him where he needs to be, and he looks up to Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson — he idolizes those guys. After I’ve gotten to know Jimmie and how focused he is, he’s one hell of a focused individual. He’s able to sift through it and stay focused on it all, and put it all together. I think Chase has looked at it that and is learning from that.”
So now Chase sits and watches the calendar, waiting for his Nov. 28 birthday, when he’ll be clear to race anything he wants. The plan is to continue juggling his final year at Kings Ridge Christian School in Atlanta, where educators are already working with the family to front-load his schedule so he’ll have an easier time pursuing a full-time ride in 2014.
Chase is anxious to turn 18, and although he’s grateful for the opportunity to run on the small tracks in trucks, he can’t help but wonder why NASCAR can’t consider drivers on a case-by-case basis for other events.
As his dad watches from the sidelines, he thinks his kid has got a shot at doing big things in NASCAR.
“Even if I try to look at it as objectively as I possibly can, for all the stuff he’s run, and now, aligning everything right and getting him with Rick and getting the right crew chief around him, he does real well for himself,” Bill said. “He’s still got a lot to learn. But on the flipside of that, at this point, he’s got a hell of a resume.
“If you look at pure racing resume and what he’s accomplished, and even if he does nothing else the rest of his career, he’s got one hell of a resume.”