Dan Palmer can hardly believe it's been 20 years.
That's how long its been since he was part of the support crew, 27 strong, that helped Dawsonville native Bill Elliott win the 1988 Winston Cup championship in the final race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Elliot finished 24 points ahead of Rusty Wallace in the final standings for his only Winston Cup championship.
Palmer, also from Dawsonville, says some of the memories from that season have faded. He didn't quite remember what place Elliott took in that race - it was 11th place - but remembered he needed a top 12 finish to claim the Winston Cup title. But what he will never forget is the teamwork that went into building the No. 1 team in NASCAR for Elliott's No. 9 Ford Thunderbird for Melling Racing.
"What I remember most is all the close friendships that we had," Palmer said. "We were just one big family that enjoyed being together."
All the surviving members from the 1988 crew got together to celebrate the 20th anniversary Saturday night in Gainesville, at the home of one of team member J.W. Waldrop, to remember all the memories, swap stories, share photographs and re-connect, since many work in different professions and are separated by many miles today. Elliott was absent from the event since he was attending his 12-year old son Chase Elliott's Legends Car Asphalt Nationals race in Elko, Minn.
Members of the crew said it was the first time they've all been in the same place together since the 1988 season.
"The memories have faded a little bit," Elliott's truck driver, Jerry Seabolt said. "But it's really nice to get back together and see what everyone is doing these days."
Winning a Winston Cup championship didn't solely consist of having the fastest driver. It's the mechanic, welder, engine builder, truck driver, shop owner, just to name a few, all working together to put the best product on the track. Seabolt said he would log 50,000 miles each season driving the car from race to race. Palmer's labor of love consisted of working 16 hour days to stay one step ahead of the competition.
"We didn't have the money or technology," Palmer added. "But we all worked extremely and hustled with what we had."
One of the points of pride for this group is they accomplished this elite status in NASCAR with a budget for the 1988 season of only $2 million, says Elliott's brother, Ernie Elliott. To put that number into perspective, most teams today operate with budgets closer to $30 million.
"Everyone that was part of that had a job to do, and did it well," Elliott said. "Getting back here to see everyone together is a really neat deal."
"Being part of that team was a dream come true for me," Elliott's engine builder Matt Thompson of Cumming, said. "It was a lot of hard work, but it was definitely worth it."
The dedication of his support crew gave a Elliott a reputation all across the country as one of the best drivers. In 1985, he won 11 races including the Daytona 500, Winston 500, and Southern 500 en route to earning the Winston Million bonus and subsequently tagged with the nickname "Million Dollar Bill."
That same year, he became the first Winston Cup driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 1988, when he won the Winston Cup title, he won six races.
The 1992 Winston Cup season was another banner season for Elliott with wins at Rockingham, Richmond, Darlington and twice in Atlanta. He finished only 10 points behind Alan Kulwicki for the Winston Cup championship that season.
"All those memories are special," Ernie Elliott added. "That's why racing in the Cup in so special, because it's the best of the best."
In 1998, Elliott was recognized by NASCAR as one of the 50 Greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, and was the American Driver of the Year in 1985 and 1988.
Protesters take to streets in downtown Gainesville