What Is The Fastest NASCAR Car Ever?

Bill Elliott achieved the fastest NASCAR speed record of all time while qualifying for the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega. In his #9 Coors Ford Thunderbird, Elliott reached a top speed of 212.809 mph. Find out how this incredible NASCAR record has stood for nearly thirty-five years.

Bill Elliott is still NASCAR’s official top-speed record holder

Bill Elliott prepares for a race. In 1987 Bill Elliott would set a top-speed NASCAR record while qualifying at Talladega that would last for over thirty years. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Bill Elliott prepares for a race | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

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William “Bill” Elliott was born in Dawsonville, Georgia, in 1955. Driving for a family-owned team, he qualified for his first Winston Cup Series race in 1976. However, it was not until 1983 that Elliott won his first Winston Cup race. Coors offered him a full sponsorship–$400,000–for the 1984 season. In 1985 he scored an incredible 11 wins and 11 poles.

For the 1987 season, Elliott’s team built him a now-legendary Ford Thunderbird. His tube-frame stock car weighed 3700 pounds. Under the hood rumbled a 351 cubic inch Ford V8 making 625 horsepower.

In his #9 Coors Ford Thunderbird, Elliott finally hit his stride. 

The #9 Ford Thunderbird set an unbreakable NASCAR record

Bill Elliott driving the Coors Ford Thunderbird #9 car. In 1987 Bill Elliott would set a top-speed NASCAR record while qualifying at Talladega that would last for over thirty years. | Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Bill Elliott driving the Coors Ford Thunderbird #9 car. | Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

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While qualifying for the Daytona 500, he broke the Daytona International Speedway record when he reached 210.364 mph. Then, while qualifying at Talladega he broke the overall NASCAR record when he reached 212.809 mph.

Elliott began the 1987 Winston 500 at Talladega in the pole position. But during lap 22, tragedy struck. Bobby Allison blew a tire, and his car went airborne, spinning around and tearing down a section of the fence protecting the grandstands. His car very nearly flew into the crowd. Five audience members were seriously injured, one even losing an eye. Thankfully, no one–including Allison–was killed.

The NASCAR officials realized the 200+ mph speeds were too fast for the cars, the drivers, and the tracks. Racing at the Talladega Superspeedway often came down to tight packs with constant passing. Another bad crash could cause a deadly NASCAR pileup.

Beginning immediately, NASCAR required all teams to install a regulation “restrictor plate” on their intake manifold at Talladega and Daytona. These plates limited the air/gas mixture going into the engine, keeping the car’s horsepower to about 410 horsepower. For this reason, no official NASCAR qualifying run or race has ever broken Elliott’s record.

Rusty Wallace once circled Talladega even faster

Rusty Wallace drives his #2 Miller Lite Dodge. In 2004 Rusty Wallace would take an unofficial Talladega practice lap, without a restrictor plate, and reach higher speeds than Bill Elliott's top-speed NASCAR record. | Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Rusty Wallace drives his #2 Miller Lite Dodge. | Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

In June 2004, NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace was completing practice laps at Talladega. Wallace said, “We’d all been wondering what it would feel like to run at Talladega again without the plates.” So, Wallace removed the restrictor plate from his #2 Miller Lite Dodge Intrepid to find out.

Wallace said the result was “a deal that I certainly will remember for the rest of my life.” Without a restrictor plate, his engine made hundreds more horsepower, and his stock car reached speeds Talladega had not seen in decades: “We hit 228 at the end of the straightaway.” 

Obviously, Wallace’s practice run without a NASCAR restrictor plate does not qualify as an official speed record.

Rusty Wallace driving his #2 Miller Lite Dodge. In 2004 Rusty Wallace would take an unofficial Talladega practice lap, without a restrictor plate, and reach higher speeds than Bill Elliott's top-speed NASCAR record. | Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images
Rusty Wallace driving his #2 Miller Lite Dodge | Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

Wallace’s team had not tuned his suspension and aerodynamics for such unprecedented speeds; he backed off during the lap. But, he said, “I’ll bet we could be running speeds up to 235 without the plates.”

But Wallace is a realist and understands exactly why NASCAR must slow the stock cars down at Talladega. He said, “It was neat to be out there running that fast by myself, but it would be insane to think we could have a pack of cars out there doing that.”

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