Before traveling to a new location, consulting experts from the area is typically recommended, so I asked NASCAR Cup champion Chase Elliott what I should know about his Dawsonville, Georgia, hometown.
“It’s a small, small town for sure,” he said. “Especially the downtown area.”
Elliott then summarized exactly what I’d see for myself Sunday as I made the trip along Georgia State Route 400, which narrows to a single-lane road that cuts straight through the heart of the city sitting an hour north of Atlanta.
“You have the downtown area that’s very much the same as it was 50 years ago and then you have this other part of town that is just completely…” he trailed off. “It’s like two different cities honestly, so very unique.”
The word that was missing from his earlier sentence was probably something like “posh” or “new” to describe the outlet mall and surrounding restaurants in the southeast part of Dawson County. Drive 10 more minutes southeast, though, and it feels a bit like a time warp.
That’s because the city’s main attractions center on its history, which is rooted in racing. A quick trip by City Hall will tell an outsider that much. The government building is connected to the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, and that’s connected to the Bill Elliott Dawsonville Moonshine Distillery, where an annual moonshine festival was in full swing outside its doors over the weekend.
Festival-goers trickled into the Hall of Fame, a museum for racing artifacts and hub for locals with ties to the local moonshine trippers that laid the framework for modern stock car racing. I spoke with David Sosebee, a former NASCAR driver of the 1980s whose father, Gober Sosebee, was recognized in the Hall’s inaugural class of inductees in 2002. He was known for his Daytona Beach road course wins and early moonshine runs.
“In the main heyday of it, (Dawsonville) was very much known,” Sosebee said.
Although there are hundreds of trophies and photos spanning drivers and generations in the Hall, most items come from Bill Elliott. His old helmets, uniforms and cars, including his Coors Thunderbird that won the 1987 Daytona 500 and what’s left of his No. 94 Ford after a brutal wreck with Dale Earnhardt at Talladega in ‘98, are preserved in Dawsonville to commemorate a NASCAR career that included 44 Cup wins as a beloved figure. He won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award 16 times, earning the nickname “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”
“Bill really put us on the map,” said Gordon Pirkle, a director of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame.
Pirkle is probably as well-known as Bill Elliott in their hometown. He was the grand marshal for the parade to kick off the moonshine festival this year. Pirkle is also the longtime owner of the Dawsonville Pool Room, a restaurant described on its website as the “unofficial auto racing headquarters” that was made popular by Bill Elliott’s frequent stops during his career. Pirkle bought the restaurant in the 1960s and his children help run it today. His son, Gordon Pirkle Jr. or “GP,” said that when he was nine years old, he would “slide a chair up to the grill and cook.” After more than 40 years, he still occasionally mans the grill and performs his administrative duties in the same restaurant where a young Chase Elliott in his early teens bussed tables for a short time.
If Elliott were to enter the Pool Room today, a crowd would form. After he won his first Cup championship last season, a parade was held in Dawsonville in which Elliott drove his No. 9 Chevrolet down the city’s main street as fans lined up to catch a glimpse of their hometown star. Pirkle said that it was the most people he’s ever seen out in downtown; he estimated that a few hundred turned up to fill in and around the restaurant.
They’re hoping to host a similar parade this year. Elliott’s 2020 Cup trophy already lives in the Hall of Fame, along with a Martinsville clock that signifies the driver’s journey into the Championship 4 last season. Could there be another trophy coming?
“I’ll find out. That’d be great. I hope we do it the same way,” Pirkle said.
That’s what the whole city is rooting for. A steady stream of customers filed into the Pool Room during Sunday’s race at Kansas to watch Elliott drive to a second-place finish behind nine-time 2021 race winner Kyle Larson. The crowd wasn’t massive or rowdy, despite the sign outside encouraging drama that reads: “#4 have a merry off season and a happy Christmas” in reference to the feud between Elliott and Kevin Harvick that peaked at the Charlotte Roval.
When asked about the sign and the feuding, GP said he “loves it” because of the fan buzz it generated.
“I hated that it was Chase, but it had to be,” GP said. “But it was still so good to see the fans coming back and listening.”
There was no intentional contact between Elliott and other drivers over the weekend at Kansas, just hard racing.
Larson is the only driver locked into the final round with one race remaining at Martinsville in the Round of 8 this Sunday, but Elliott is up 34 points ahead of the cutoff and heading to a track where he won last year. At least three televisions in the Pool Room will be playing that race come next Sunday, and so will plenty of screens in homes around town.
Elliott fans wearing their NAPA Auto Parts jackets and Hooters t-shirts will be eagerly awaiting the sound of a siren (properly pronounced si-reen with the right Southern accent), which has signified every Elliott victory since before Chase was born — a tradition that started at the Pool Room when Bill Elliott won his first Cup race in 1983 at Riverside. It didn’t sound Sunday. Before I left, GP told me that if Elliott makes the season finale, it would be worth a return trip to see the hype.
But a single playoff race in town was enough at least to better summarize Chase Elliott’s celebrity. He’s a NASCAR champion with a big name from a small town.