Bad news travels fast in the racing world and my phone rang early Saturday morning letting me know we had lost James and Tweety Hylton in a car wreck in South Carolina while their longtime friend and crew chief Terry Strange was badly hurt.
The news hit me like a ton of bricks. These guys are part of my racing family. It’s taken me a couple of days to write this without welling up.
There are lots of folks that knew these guys better and longer than I have but I thought I would share a few stories about James Harvey Hylton that I’ll always keep with me and were why Hylton was such a beloved character in Motorsports.
In 2013 Hylton was making his final turn as a race car driver at 78, it was also my son’s, Thomas first full year at 23. The picture above was captured at Springfield State Fair Grounds in 2013.
The incoming and the outgoing working the crowd together. Five years ago it was a special picture todays it’s priceless.
Hylton’s racing resume is incredible and I won’t recite chapter and verse but it’s important to note he was the 1966 NASCAR Rookie of the Year while finishing 2nd in the Championship to David Pearson and he finished 2nd in points twice to the King, Richard Petty in the 70’s.
In his final race at 78 years young a bunch of people got together to make Hylton a really nice Ford race car for his final race at Kansas. It was really nice and Hylton was really fast.
The picture above is from Hylton’s final race at Kansas in 2013. This picture of James and Thomas racing together made newspapers all over the country.
Thomas passed James early in the race and with the laps winding down Hylton picked up the pace getting faster as if the years were going backwards with each lap. Hylton soon passed Thomas setting sail to the end of a long and storied career. Earning Thomas a special place in Hylton folklore.
“Every week we were at the track Mr. Hylton would come over to talk and every conversation started with him reminding me I was the last driver he ever passed,” offered Thomas. “He always had that big grin chuckling when he said it. I’m sure gonna miss him.”
And that was the essence of James Hylton, it didn’t make any difference who you were, where you were you always left smiling and your day was always better because you had seen him.
Hylton’s race team along with our race team are considered 2nd tier teams in the ARCA Series, we don’t have the money the other guys do but we still take a lot of pride in our teams.
Some of the young guys don’t get it, they think our stuff is just junk but I wouldn’t press James Hylton about that.
We were in Winchester a few years ago, unload on Friday-race on Saturday kind of a deal. Our group was already unloaded and the 48 team had just gotten to the track on Saturday morning.
When I walked up one of the guys was trying to wrap the fenders and hood in red vinyl. For underfunded teams like ours and Hyltons we use vinyl to cover spots we didn’t have the time or resources to get painted. Not like Joe Gibbs racing where they wrap entire cars.
Thanks to my driver over the last few years I’ve done more wrapping than LL Cool J. Hyltons group was struggling and I stepped in to wrap while they got their pit box setup.
James was in the middle of the group barking orders in his 80s like he was going out to race Petty or Pearson back in the Sixties or Seventies. Hylton stood over me for a few minutes to make sure I wasn’t messing his car up, then he started coming back every now and then to check on me.
I noticed every time he came back he was picking up the scraps I was cutting off and letting fall on the ground. I thought that’s good don’t want to leave a mess out here in the front.
It took a few trips before I realized he was straightening them out and putting them on other spots of his car that were banged up or missing paint. Once I realized what was going on I took the extra and set it on the roof and James would put them where he wanted them.
We say we run on a shoe string budget, Hylton runs on a piano string.
When we finally got done Hylton was proud as a peacock that his car was looking good again. The lesson was simple, just because you don’t have a big budget doesn’t mean you don’t take pride in your race team or for that matter anything.
Last year, I was part of a group of underfunded teams like Hylton’s and ours that met with ARCA officials. The idea was to get some help on the rules so our old cars and motors might keep up better with the new bodies and motors.
Hylton the competitor took charge in that meeting and explained it better than anyone. “You guys are making us look bad and we don’t want to race like this we want to be competitive.”
For those of you who thought James was just there to pick up the money and go home, you were wrong. He was a racer through and through.
Tommy Praytor’s racing resume includes: Hosting Inside Alabama Racing for 20 seasons, TV broadcaster, Crew Member/Spotter/PR Person in the Monster Cup, Xfinity, Camping World Truck Series and ARCA Series, Promoter of NASCAR, ARCA and local races and as a driver, car owner.