After nearly a half-century behind a stock car wheel, James Hylton, 78, took his final lap around Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in May when his car was smashed in a multi-vehicle crash less than halfway through the race.
It was a bittersweet return to the fabled track for Hylton, who won the Talladega 500 in 1972 and plans to retire at the end of the racing season. “It’s hard to believe so many years have passed,” says Hylton, of Inman, S.C. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
Hylton, who ran his first NASCAR race in 1964, today competes in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) series, running his No. 48 car against much younger drivers.
“It’s cool to see him still racing,” says Mason Mingus, 18, a rising star in the ARCA series. “He’s an all-around great guy, with a ton of stories. I hope I’m going as strong as he is when I’m 78.”
A racing era will pass when Hylton makes his final pit stop this fall.
“James has been in the sport as long as most of us can remember,” says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR champion and Fox Sports commentator. “He’s a fixture.”
Waltrip and Hylton waged a fierce battle in the ’72 Talladega race until Waltrip was sidelined with a blown motor. That opened the door for Hylton’s career-best victory.
“If I had to lose it, I’d rather it be to James than anybody,” Waltrip says. “Nobody has paid more dues than he has over the years.”
Born on a farm in Roanoke, Va., James was one of 13 children in the Hylton family. Like many restless rural youngsters in the 1950s, he was drawn to the excitement of the racetrack. He was hired as a mechanic, then became a crew chief, and eventually graduated to driver.
In Hylton’s first NASCAR race in 1964, he finished 19th and won $100. During the ensuing years, Hylton ran about 600 top-tier races, winning two—the Richmond (Va.) 500 in 1970 and the 1972 Talladega race—against superstars such as Richard Petty and David Pearson.
“I didn’t always run up front, but I always ran hard, and as Sinatra said, I did it my way,” says Hylton, NASCAR’s 1966 Rookie of the Year.
With fewer than a dozen races remaining on the 2013 ARCA schedule, Hylton isn’t attempting to set any records. “I’m not trying to impress anybody or prove anything,” he says. “I race because I love it.”
Being recognized for his longevity on the racetrack is rewarding. “I appreciate it when somebody comes up and tells me they remember me from the old days,” he says.
Though he’s hanging up his driver’s helmet, Hylton isn’t abandoning the sport. He intends to remain active as owner of Hylton Motorsports, likely helping a fledgling driver get his start.