Chase Elliott is the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion. His father Bill is a NASCAR legend with a pair of Daytona 500 wins in 1985 and 1987 and the Cup Series championship in 1988. That last accomplishment and everything that followed in his career and personal life, including the birth of Chase, almost never happened.
It was November 1987. Bill Elliott won the final race of the season in Atlanta. A couple of days later, he headed to a nearby Air Reserve Base to film a promotional spot, and fly in an F-16 fighter jet, a chance of a lifetime. That opportunity almost cost him his life as Elliott’s plane was involved in a terrifying mid-air accident with another jet that caused the other plane to crash. What happened next to Elliott is the stuff you find in hard-to-believe movies.
Bill Elliott’s 1987 season filled with ups and downs
Every NASCAR driver experiences highs and lows in their career and more specifically, in a season. Those peaks and valleys were extreme for Bill Elliott in the 1987 season.
He started that year in spectacular fashion, winning the Daytona 500 for a second time in his career. Elliott won four more times that year and was in prime position to win his first Cup Series title when disaster struck in the second-to-last race of the season on Riverside’s road course.
During a regular pit stop, it turned out to be anything but regular as Michael Waltrip made contact with another car and then lost control and slid into Elliott’s car, knocking it off the jack and injuring three members of his crew.
Chuck Hill on Elliott’s crew suffered massive injuries, lost a lot of blood, and almost died. He spent almost a month recovering in a California hospital. Incredibly, with a makeshift pit crew filling in for the injured members, Elliott returned to racing the following week and won the Atlanta Journal 500 in Atlanta to close out the season. He finished second in the season standings behind Dale Earnhardt.
Bill Elliott goes for a fun ride in an F-16 fighter jet that turns disastrous
A couple of days after winning in Atlanta, Bill Elliott headed over to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia to film a promotional spot for the Air Force Reserve. After shooting the promo, Elliott, who had flown his own private plane for years, got the chance of a lifetime to go up in a F-16 fighter jet and experience simulated combat maneuvers with a pair of F-15s.
Elliott’s pilot first performed a couple of engagements with the other jets at 2,500 feet and then climbed up to 14,000 feet for two more. During one of the high-level maneuvers, something went terribly wrong.
“We were almost colliding, so my guy turns left. The other guy turns left and pulls up,” Elliott described in The Scene Vault Podcast. “And our right wing goes through the belly of his airplane. It cut into the fuselage and caught him on fire. So when he caught on fire, he punched out (ejected).”
Narrowly escapes death
While the other plane crashed, the jet with Bill Elliott suffered serious damage to the right wing, fuel tank, and a loss of communication between Elliott and the pilot. The pilot improvised.
“The guy wrote me a note. He says, ‘I’m going to try and land in configuration. If we lose control, EJECT.’ He had it underlined three or four times. I thought, right, yeah, OK,” Elliott recalled.
Elliott said the pilot somehow managed to control the plane and they quickly made their descent. When they got close enough to see the runway, what Elliott saw was unsettling as the airport was littered with safety equipment, including ambulances and fire trucks.
Once they safely landed, the base commander ripped the pilot for the accident. Bill Elliott was debriefed on the incident for a couple of hours. He assured officials he was not flying the plane at any point.
In looking back on it, Elliott said he realized he came within inches of dying that day. A year after the incident, Elliott learned he was much closer to death than he originally thought when someone informed him that his ejection seat hadn’t been charged. Had he needed to eject that day, it wouldn’t have worked.