|PHOTO: CBS Sports|
Horton was born in Folsom, New Jersey, and from a young age was swept up in the action of the competitive modified ranks across the northeast. In 1973, the 17-year-old driver got his start racing for his father, but a rash of crashes threatened to end his career. “I was just a cocky, snot-nosed kid,” said Horton in a 2015 interview, “but I told myself right from the start that if I didn’t win a feature in any one year, I’m gunna[sic] quit.” By the end of 1974, Horton had his first feature win – and another nine – and a pair of track championships. He hasn’t quit since.
The next decade saw Horton continue to grow as a competitor. In 1975, he scored his first of nine track championships at the Bridgeport (New Jersey) Speedway. The next year, he took the modified title at the Orange County Speedway. By 1979, he was invited to run sprint cars, and won his first series start at Bridgeport. In 1983, he made his first USAC Silver Crown start at Nazareth, where the result was the same. As a last-minute replacement for another driver, Horton drove a battered car to fourth on the grid, then was second to Gary Bettenhausen when the leader blew a tire, handing him the victory.
Horton earned the respect of some of dirt track racing’s most seasoned veterans, including longtime friend – and competitor – Ken Schrader. “He’s a really good racer,” said Schrader, “the complete package. He’s one of these guys who can literally build a car right from the tubing rack, set it up when it’s done, and drive the wheels off it when he gets there. As far as the complete package, there aren’t too many who can out-run him. It doesn’t matter what series Jimmy races in. . .he’s good at it no matter what it is. Excellent racer.”
Perhaps it was Horton’s friendship with Schrader that made the dirt tracker eye a move to stock car racing. He made his XFINITY Series debut in the 1985 season opener at Daytona, where he entered a #85 S&H Racing Pontiac prepared by his father-in-law George Smith. Though it must have been a tremendous leap to go from dirt tracks to one of NASCAR’s biggest superspeedways, Horton once again proved a quick study. He not only got #85 into the show, but timed in 18th of 42 drivers before engine trouble left him 41st. The next year at Daytona, the equipment held together, and he ran 15th, besting the likes of Dale Jarrett, Brett Bodine, Tommy Houston, and Davey Allison.
Horton and Smith next eyed a move to Winston Cup in 1987, when they withdrew from Talladega, then qualified for both races at Pocono. In his Cup debut that June, driving a #80 Fordon sponsored by Miles Concrete, Horton impressed once again, driving from 34th on the grid to finish 21st. He made another eight starts in 1988 and improved once more, earning a pair of 18th-place runs at Darlington and Pocono. That same season, Horton branched out into ARCA, which at the time welcomed drivers who failed to qualify for Cup events during companion weekends. When he missed the cut for the 1988 Daytona 500, Horton ran 25th in his first ARCA 200, an event he then won in 1990. The Daytona win spawned an unprecedented superspeedway sweep in which he won his next four starts at Atlanta, Talladega, and both rounds at Pocono, ranking 21st in points despite running less than half the ARCA schedule.
Horton’s superspeedway prowess attracted the attention of Rick Hendrick, whose driver Darrell Waltrip was critically injured in a practice crash prior to the July running of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Hendrick tabbed Horton to drive Waltrip’s car, which then had to surrender its 5th-place spot on the grid. Unfortunately, this placed Horton right in the middle of a grinding opening-lap crash that left his #17 Tide Chevrolet with extensive right-side damage. Still, the relief driver managed a 17th-place finish, and would improve to 13th in his next relief role at Talladega.
In 1992, Horton parted ways with Smith and signed with a new team, Active Motorsports. Team owner Joe Horner acquired a Chevrolet from Darrell Waltrip and entered it in the season-opening ARCA 200. The results were once again immediate – Horton started 4th, led 25 of 80 laps, and took the victory over Bobby Bowsher. As it turned out, this would be one of only two ARCA starts for Horton that season. Horner entered Horton in 11 Cup races that season, starting with the spring race at Atlanta. The red #32 Active Trucking Chevrolet earned a season-best 22nd at Dover and was also a part of the historic Hooters 500 that November, finishing 24th.
Active Motorsports returned to Cup in 1993, attempting 17 of the 30 races. The team also hired Mike Hillman as crew chief, marking the first time he’d held that position in Cup. Hillman remained active as a crew chief through the 2016 season, when he led Michael Annett’s #46 Pilot Travel Centers Chevrolet, and would also become a car owner in Cup and Truck Series competition. The partnership led to Horton’s first Daytona 500 start in three years, where he ran 25th. Heading into June’s race at Michigan, however, Horton had finished no better and twice and failed to qualify three times – one each at Richmond, North Wilkesboro, and Dover.
Horton was one of 43 drivers to attempt the 41-car field for the Miller Genuine Draft 400. He began the weekend on the right note, securing his best starting spot of his career (to that date) with 20th on the grid. The two drivers sent home after time trails were veteran Canadian driver Trevor Boys, who was behind the wheel of James Hylton’s #48 Rumple Furniture Pontiac, and Winston West competitor Jeff Davis in his #81 Van-K Karting Wheels Ford.
Starting last in the field was owner-driver Jimmy “Smut” Means, who was midway through his final season as a full-time Cup Series driver. His black #52 Ford Thunderbird carried sponsorship from Hurley Limo, which signed on late in the 1992 season. Joining him at the rear was Geoffrey Bodine, who was sent to a backup car after he wrecked his primary #15 Motorcraft Quality Parts Ford in final practice. On the final pace lap, Bodine pulled down pit road for a splash of fuel before rejoining the tail end of the pack.
When the green flag dropped, Bodine and Means passed H.B. Bailey, the Texan owner-driver in his #36 Almeda Auto Parts Pontiac. Having started 40th on the grid, this was to be the next-to-last of his 85 career Cup starts, a career which dated back to 1962 and ended that September at Darlington. Bailey was still part of the tail-end of the field when the first caution fell on Lap 3. On that lap, Horton was running in the high lane in Turns 1 and 2 when the car broke loose, then slammed the outside wall with the left-rear. The impact sheared the fuel filler neck from the fuel cell, spilling gas and sparking a trail of flames. Crews extinguished the flames and Horton climbed from the car uninjured, but done for the day.
40th in the finishing order went to fellow ARCA driver Clay Young, who was making his first Cup start of the season in a second Jimmy Means car, the #62 Ford (which had also been entered by longtime owner-driver Henley Gray). The 46-year-old Young retired with a dropped cylinder. 39th went to polesitter Brett Bodine, who lost an engine on the #26 Quaker State Ford after just 22 laps. 38th went to road racer P.J. Jones, whose third start in Melling Racing’s iconic #9 Melling Auto Parts Ford ended with a blown head gasket. Rounding out the Bottom Five in 37th was Michael Waltrip, who dropped a valve on Bahari’ Racing’s bright yellow #30 Pennzoil Pontiac.
|The remains of Horton's Talladega car, 1993|
PHOTO: Jason Harris, Gadsden Times
On November 11, 1995 came a second, more serious accident. On Lap 37 of the Hoosier General Tire 500k, the ARCA season finale at Atlanta, Horton was driving for his friend Ken Schrader when Curt Dickie’s #62 Pontiac spun out in front of him. Horton slowed his #52 AC-Delco Chevrolet, but was rear-ended by another car, steering him directly into the wreck. The three cars collided so hard that Horton’s car flipped onto its roof. To add insult to injury, Horton’s car was just about to right itself when his teammate Ed Dixon struck him from beneath, sending him over once more. This time, Horton didn’t escape without injury. “I broke both shoulder blades, cracked my skull, cracked a vertebrae in by[sic] back…a concussion. I was lucky.”
In 1998, Horton was tabbed by the struggling ISM Racing to get the #35 Tabasco Pontiac into the field for the Pennsylvania 500. The resulting DNQ was his last attempt in stock car racing.
“I would have liked to have done some things differently,” said Horton, “would have liked to have made it in NASCAR, but my timing was wrong. When I was really young, car owners and sponsors weren’t interested in young kids back then. They wanted older, more experienced drivers. By the time I got the chance to go there, I was 32, and by then they were looking at the young kids coming along. But I’m not complaining. When I think about the things I’ve accomplished, it amazes me when I look back at it. When I was out of NASCAR, I just went back modified racing.”
Through it all, the driver some call “Air” Horton is still speeding around dirt tracks across the country, particularly in the dirt modified ranks. His statistics are astounding: coming into 2015, he had amassed 426 modified and small-block modified victories – 133 at Bridgeport alone – and 30 track or series championships, all spread over 41 winning seasons. As of this writing, he currently leads the Big Block Modified championship standings at the Orange County Fair Speedway, where he drives for the Halmar Racing Team (which also fields Stewart Friesen’s Truck Series effort). For updates on his upcoming races, be sure to check out his Facebook page.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #32 in a Cup series race since June 3, 1979, when Jimmy Finger’s #32 Vita Fresh / Pharis Chevy Buick had engine trouble after 5 laps of the Texas 400 at the Texas World Speedway. It was also the first of three last-place finishes for the number at Michigan, the most recent of which came in 2014 with Travis Kvapil.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
41) #32-Jimmy Horton / 2 laps / crash
40) #62-Clay Young / 14 laps / cylinder
39) #26-Brett Bodine / 22 laps / engine
38) #9-P.J. Jones / 64 laps / head gasket
37) #30-Michael Waltrip / 91 laps / valve
*1993 Jimmy Horton Flip @ Talladega, CBS (posted by NASCARAllOut)
*1993 Miller Genuine Draft 400 at Michigan, CBS (posted by TheRacingJungle2)
*Author Unknown, “Horton Wins At Daytona,” New York Times, February 9, 1992
*Jimmy Horton Flips @ Atlanta, ESPN (posted by OldSchoolNASCAR)
*Radebaugh, Don. “‘Where are they now?’ … the incredible career of modified man / ARCA winner Jimmy Horton,” ARCARacing.com, January 8, 2015.