Bill Ellershaw: The Ultimate Man Behind The Scene

May 19, 2016

Story By Jim Hill

Way back when the sport of drag racing was in its crawl-before-run stages, a young Wally Parks labeled the amazing mechanical innovations he saw coming from drag racers as: “Ingenuity in Action”. Parks’ astute observation is perhaps best exemplified by the lifetime contributions and career of Rocky Pirrone’s “…here, there and everywhere” sidekick, Bill Ellershaw.

Bill has been described by his racing partner, Rocky Pirrone, as: “The ultimate team player and man behind the scenes.” It’s an apt description for a man who takes great pride in his imminently critical position as the unsung hero of the team. Rocky is also quick to recognize the hugely significant contributions to his entire team, from those who toil at the race shop to those who act as crew members at the race track. Their tasks and contributions are numerous and the hours lengthy.

As the team’s hands-on doer, Ellershaw has that uncanny gift of being able to “see” a mechanical problem, logically create its solution, and then execute the resolution to perfection. Bill is the living, breathing example of that commonly exclaimed frustration: “Now, why didn’t I think of that!?”

For Bill Ellershaw, tinkering with hot rods and expanding that interest into an amazing craft began in the mid 1960’s, when Ellershaw went to legendary Atco Dragway, southeast of Philadelphia. He was there as a spectator, and already had a young family that demanded the majority of his time and attention. Still, Bill never forgot the sound of open headers and the tire smoking race cars there that day.

Bill’s father owned a local auto repair shop, and there Bill learned the basics by tackling all phases of the repair problems in his dad’s shop. That experience taught Ellershaw the right way to approach the myriad of daily problems that confronted him, and how to solve them. In those days computers were found at Cape Canaveral, not in neighborhood repair garages. Mechanics learned to diagnose problems using the basics of automotive engineering, and then to repair or replace defective parts.

Bill began building street rods and one of his earliest projects was the restoration of an American-LeFrance fire truck. That long term effort that earned him praise from many different circles, but Ellershaw’s desire to build and maintain race cars at the professional level remained the itch he was unable to scratch.

Bill’s chance came in 1996 when his daughter, Donna began dating Rocky Pirrone, a local racer and businessman. Rocky was the son of Joe Pirrone, Jr., a highly respected eastern drag racing figure who’s A/Gas Supercharged “Boss Hydro” ’33 Willys coupe ran against and often defeated many of the legendary A/GS stars of the day. Working in his dad’s shop and racing weekends taught Rocky the right way to race and how to build and operate a successful business. Joe also shared with Rocky the unique innovations he created in building racing automatic transmissions and components for his own cars and those of his customers.

Bill quickly became a regular at Rocky’s shop and was soon working for Rocky in a variety of roles. These included handling odd jobs to the many real estate projects Rocky was involved in. Although Bill had no experience in building race cars, his natural mechanical aptitude and high skill levels made him a natural. He took those skills and hit the ground running, never once doubting he could succeed.

Together, Bill and Rocky built a ’41 Willys coupe for nostalgia A/Gas Supercharged racing. Working alongside them was Joe Pirrone, lending his lifetime of race car knowledge and labor. The result would be the “Big Time Memories” car, a tribute to the 60’s A/GS racing that Rocky’s dad loved.

Sadly, Joe Pirrone, Jr., succumbed to cancer not long after the car was completed.

During the construction of the Big Time Memories ’41 Willys Bill Ellershaw and Rocky Pirrone forged a strong friendship. That led to their constructing their first nitro Funny Car. The two became racing partners to maintain and campaign the cars and to expand the support facilities needed to field a pro-level effort.

Among Bill Ellershaw’s earliest projects was Rocky Piurrone’s ’41 Willys “Big Time Memories”, a tribute to the A/Gas Supercharged class cars that were among the most popular during the 60’s “Golden Age of Drag Racing”. The car was also one of the earliest nostalgia match racers to thrill fans with long, smoky burn-out’s and wild, wheels-up action. 

Bill Ellershaw’s considerable talents have continued to shine on other projects that Pirrone & Ellershaw Racing have undertaken. No matter the level of the challenge, Bill’s “hey, we can do this!” attitude prevails. Bill is also endowed with the patience and unselfish knowledge necessary to make him a great teacher of all the skills he has mastered, and pass them along to others.

Along the way Pirrone & Ellershaw Racing also created Classical AA/GS Association, an organization dedicated to recreating the sound and fury of 1960’s era racing. This touring group brings a professional racing show that not only entertains, but educates younger fans about the golden era of drag racing.

Among the classic blown Gassers P&E have brought back to life are Joe Pirrone, Jr.,’s original Boss Hydro, ’33 Willys, K.S. “Tiger” Pittman’s ’33 Willys, Big John Mazmanian’s candy-apple red, Chrysler powered ’41 Willys, and of course, the Big Time Memories ’41 Willys coupe.

Also the product of the Pirrone & Ellershaw collaboration are several nostalgia Funny Cars. These include the Frantic Ford, a ’69 Mustang, the Screamin’ Eagle ‘77 Pontiac Firebird and the Super Camaro, a ’69 Camaro SS.

Not content with merely Supercharged Gassers and Funny Cars, they also created a front-engine, Hemi powered Fiat A/Fuel Coupe. This is essentially a 60’s era front-motor AA/Fuel Dragster whose driver is cloaked in a fiberglass ’48 Fiat Topolino body. Such cars were hugely popular in the 60’s, especially in California. Notable examples were The Fireside Inn AA/Fuel Comp Roadster and “Flamin Frank” Pedregon’s Fiat AA/Fuel Comp Coupe. Self-dubbed “The World’s Fastest Mexican”, the late Frank Pedregon was the father of nitro Funny Car drivers the Pedregon brothers, Tony and Cruz, both NHRA big-show drivers. (Tony is the current color commentator on NHRA’s major event TV broadcast coverage.)

Bill Ellershaw’s unmistakable imprint rests on all these cars but it’s his easy-going, convincing “Let’s get on this and get it done!” attitude that infects not only Bill, but everyone around him.

The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame salutes 2015 inductee Bill Ellershaw. Bill also made sure that we acknowledge the priceless contributions of all his valued associates “back at the shop”. Pirrone and Ellershaw recently hosted an open-house with all their cars and projects on display in a brand new facility.