Clinton, South Carolina, Saturday, April 28, 2018, 10:57 a.m.
I thought about James Harvey Hylton the day before yesterday. Some local hardhead came up, and it made me think of what James called himself when I was wrting a long profile of him back in 1993 or ’94.
The Last of the Mohicans. That he was.
I’m not overwhelmed with sadness. James was 83 and a racer till the end. When he and his son, “Tweety,” perished in a highway crash this morning, they were headed back to Inman because ARCA ran a race at Talladega on Friday and James owned an ARCA team.
As I’ve gotten older and experienced the tragedies that all of us go through, I’ve come to reserve my deepest grief for those who don’t get a chance to live a life as full as Hylton’s.
Frank Sinatra never did it his way anywhere close to as much as Hylton did. When I still went to the tracks, I almost always strolled over to the ARCA garage to chat with him and Terry Strange, who considered James the closest thing to a father he ever had. Terry was seriously injured in the crash, too.
I had even mentioned James in the blog this one was supposed to be and will probably be resumed tomorrow. He was in a list of unlikely Talladega winners. I remember distinctly James outdueling Ramo Stott, in the Talladega 500 on August 6, 1972 as I listened on the radio. He drove an orange Mercury sponsored by a short-lived soft drink named Pop Kola. He also won the Richmond 500 on March 1, 1970.
The only driver who ever won a championship in NASCAR’s premier series in No. 48 is Jimmie Johnson, but Hylton was runner-up in the standings three times – 1966 to David Pearson, ’67 and ’71 to Richard Petty – not to mention third four times and fourth once. His was a substantial career, and not only was he the last of the Mohicans. He may have been the greatest of NASCAR’s true independents.
James was 78 when he ran his last ARCA race, finishing 18th in a race known as the Kansas Lottery 98.9 – predictably at Kansas Speedway — on Oct. 4, 2013. He raced because it was all he ever wanted to do, and his personality was that of a cowboy, a guitar picker and a mountain trapper.
And, oh, yeah, a Mohican.
Once, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, James was frustrated after failing to make the field for an ARCA race. He slid behind the wheel of the old Dodge that he claimed had a million miles on it, ready to head home. A guard told him he couldn’t go out the chain-link gate he came in, and James told him, by God, he would. He backed that truck up, revved the engine and ran it right through the gate. I can’t find any evidence that he ever ran Charlotte again. I’m satisfied he didn’t pay for that gate.
James had a homemade dynamometer in the yard of his shop. It had a rusting tractor seat, a gear shift, a transmission into which his engines were inserted, and a huge propeller. He measured the horsepower from the revolutions of the propeller. He told me he got that idea from Robert Yates and insisted it was more accurate than those high-dollar dynos others used. He also mixed up a silicate solution that he poured into an engine to make a cracked block last for a while. He told me that stuff cost $40 a can at the parts trailer, but he could mix it up for a lot less, and the only difference was that his wasn’t tinted black.
It was fitting in more than one way that James died on the way home from Talladega and not just because it was the site of his greatest victory. He told me it was also the beginning of his end. Both of his victories occurred afterwards, but he was a ringleader in the group known as the Professional Drivers Association (PDA), which boycotted the first-every Talladega race. Most of the big names followed suit, but Big Bill France eventually crushed that union. Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and others worked their way back into NASCAR’s good graces, but James didn’t have their star power, and the powers that were eventually squashed him like an annoying bug. He thought they stole some of his sponsors and ran others away from then on.
James was bitter, but he didn’t give a damn what they did, and, in the hereafter, I hope he wins.
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