Saturday, April 28, 2018

TRIBUTE: Another piece of stock car racing’s owner-driver past lost in deaths of James Hylton and son

James Hylton's #48 Rumple Furniture and
 Classic Trophies Pontiac on the hauler, 1992
PHOTO: source unknown
Yesterday at Talladega, Hylton Motorsports didn’t complete a lap of ARCA’s General Tire 200. The #48 Ford had a new front valence, but according to driver Brad Smith, struggled with mechanical issues all weekend. Smith made a pit stop before the start, then ultimately turned behind the wall, leaving him last in the 31-car field.

As the race wore on, the crew loaded up the team’s small white trailer. Crew chief Terry Strange climbed aboard the truck that would pull it back home. Joining him were the team’s owner, James Harvey Hylton, and his son James “Tweet” Hylton.

Today came the news. Overnight, the truck crashed on a highway in Georgia. Hylton and his son were killed.

It’s tragically ironic that the accident occurred after a race at Talladega. The superspeedway saw one of Hylton’s proudest moments as a driver. On August 6, 1972, he flew to victory in his self-prepared #48 Pop-Kola Mercury, leading 106 of 188 laps. It was his second of two Cup Series victories, the other coming at the Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway just over two years earlier.

As long ago as those races may seem, in truth, he was close to victory even earlier. He made his first Cup start on July 8, 1964, running at the Old Dominion Speedway, a 0.375-mile paved track in Manassas, Virginia. He drove a backup car belonging to Ned Jarrett, the Bondy Long-prepared machine changed from #11 to #71 with a couple streaks of paint. Hylton was eager to prove himself, and showed speed early, but was under strict instructions to park the car. To ensure this, the team had welded shut the gas cap.

Two years later in 1966, he returned to action with a car of his own. Hylton founded his own team, Hylton Motorsports, in his hometown of Inman, South Carolina. He chose car #48, and with sponsorship from Econo Wash, made the long trip west to Riverside, California. Transmission trouble stopped his Dodge, but he still finished 21st. What followed was one of the most incredible rookie seasons in NASCAR history. Weeks later, in his first Daytona 500, Hylton finished 9th. He came home 5th at Bristol. At season’s end, after 41 starts, he’d finished Top Five in nearly half of them – 20 – and earned a Top Ten in all but nine. To top it off, he finished 2nd in the series standings, trailing only David Pearson, who had the advantage of starting one more race.

In an age where Pearson and Richard Petty dominated, it’s been overlooked just how strong Hylton was back then. He was the Matt Kenseth of his day, showing tremendous consistency. From 1966 through 1973, he never ranked worse than 7th in points, including two more runner-up finishes to Richard Petty in 1967 and 1971. When NASCAR reduced the length of the Cup schedule and set minimum race lengths, Hylton made the adjustment with surprising smoothness. He was 3rd in the standings in 1975 and 7th in 1977.

It was only at the turn of the following decade that Hylton scaled back on his Cup effort, bringing in other drivers to run his #48: Ronnie Thomas, Tony Spanos, and most notably Canadian driver Trevor Boys. Hylton still raced from time to time, becoming an ageless owner-driver like his contemporaries, Dave Marcis, J.D. McDuffie, and the like. In this role, he led a group of independents who successfully petitioned NASCAR for a fair pay structure. The “Plan A” and “Plan B” system, basically a “best-in-class” program for owner-drivers, soon became a part of NASCAR’s contingency sponsor program.

Hylton was also resourceful with the assets he had on hand. In 1991, when he was 56, Hylton qualified a Buick that was so old, NASCAR thought it was a Chevrolet. “Hyltonmobile” became the “official” term. After the passing of J.D. McDuffie, Hylton welcomed several members of McDuffie Racing to join his effort in 1992. That season, Hylton made more starts in the Cup Series than any season since 1982, thanks to the backing of McDuffie supporters Rumple Furniture, Classic Trophies, and the Stettmeier family.

By the 1990s, Hylton had found a home in the ARCA Racing Series, where he continued to break age records. His first full-season attempt came in 2006, when he was 71. His best finish of the year was a 21st at Pocono, the same track where he ran the “Hyltonmobile” 15 years earlier.

Over the following offseason, Hylton acquired another old Chevrolet – this time a bright orange Cup car from Richard Childress Racing that had once been Jeff Burton’s Cingular Wireless machine. With it, Hylton put together an effort to make his first Cup Series start since 1993, and his first Daytona 500 since 1983. With Jimmie Johnson now campaigning the #48, Hylton’s Retirement Living TV car carried #58. In the final laps of his 150-mile qualifier, Hylton had raced his way into a transfer spot before a late caution, then a broken transmission, left him out of the field. Another Daytona 500 attempt followed in 2009, but this time the car withdrew after missing practice.

Hylton’s driving career continued for another four years, during which time he continued to dabble in the Xfinity and Truck Series. His final start as a driver came on October 4, 2013, when he closed out the ARCA season 11th in points following an 18th-place showing at Kansas. At the time, his age was 78 years, 1 month, and 8 days.

While Hylton Motorsports has remained a fixture in the ARCA Racing Series since 2013, the team now faces an uncertain future without its founder. Another piece of NASCAR’s owner-driver past has been lost. Some may call it a casualty of a changing sport, but to do so would risk forgetting all that this man and this team has done for two different stock car series – two series which, also yesterday, announced another big step in their history.

Most of all, as Hylton lived, and as Hershel McGriff prepares to run a K&N Pro Series West event next week at age 90, there is perhaps hope that others will seek and find such longevity in stock car racing.

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