Sunday, March 1, 2015

March 1, 1970: An 1ndependent Has H1s Day

Some folks who have become a NASCAR fan only within the last 20 years or so may have tuned in to the most recent NASCAR Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies just to see Bill Elliott. Some may have heard of Wendell Scott or Fred Lorenzen, but they may not have known some of the others - including the presenters.

James Harvey Hylton is one man I suspect many contemporary fans didn't recognize that night. Hylton wasn't inducted into the Hall, but he was there to present the Hall of Fame ring to his friend and former employer, Rex White.

If you saw that night's events, you'll recall poor ol' James didn't get to say much. White was so excited about being inducted that he pre-empted Hylton's remarks before James even got a chance to begin! Hylton didn't seem to mind though. He stood quietly and patiently by his friend's side - biding his time until the moment was right.

In some respects, that typified Hylton's driving career. Hylton began his racing career as a mechanic. He crew'd for drivers such as White, fellow NASCAR HOFer Ned Jarrett and Dick Hutcherson. He joined the Grand National ranks as a drive and was named NASCAR's 1966 Rookie of the Year. He finished second to David Pearson for that season's title - despite not winning a race.

Hylton knew his way around a car and around a track, but the promising young driver just could not find his way to victory lane. Not in 1966 or 1967 or so on. Hylton was an independent driver. He bought and built his own stuff and did not have financial advantages of being associated with a factory-supported race team. Yet he rolled in to the track each race and gave it all he had.

The 1970 season began in Riverside, California in mid-January. Super Tex A.J. Foyt won the race, but Hylton trekked back east with a 35th place finish after losing an engine in his Dodge. In late February, folks were stunned when a Petty Plymouth Superbird won the second race of the season, the Daytona 500 - but without The King at the wheel. Pete Hamilton pulled off the surprising victory to become a first-time GN winner.

As the Petty team celebrated, Hylton's Speedweeks was pretty only so-so. He wrecked his recently acquired Ford during practice before the qualifying twins and had to borrow a year-old #23 Plymouth from owner Don Robertson to race to a 22nd place finish in the 500.

One week after Daytona, the GN circus rolled into Richmond, Virginia for the season's third event. After racing the winged Superbird in the first two races of the season, Richard Petty went to his bread-and-butter, short-track special, Plymouth Roadrunner. With the ease that Petty got around Richmond, no one was all that surprised when he won the pole.

Source: Spartanburg Herald via Google News Archive
Fellow Mopar driver, Bobby Isaac, timed second in his short-track #71 K&K Insurance Dodge. Hylton was perhaps a mild surprise in qualifying with the third quickest time in his Ford. His Blue Oval, however, wasn't just any Ford.

Perry Allen Wood interviewed Hylton for his book Declarations of Stock Car Independents:
I had just bought a Holman Moody Ford, an ex-David Pearson car. I run it under Pearson’s colors. It was pretty. We just had time to put the 48 decals on it... Picked it up at Holman Moody, Ralph Moody set the car up, took it up to Richmond, unloaded it, qualified either second or third... Petty had the hotrod. He was the fastest car there. He was factory backed, I was independent. Havin’ a Holman Moody car kind of put us on an equal basis temporarily anyway. ~ p. 229
Courtesy of Jeff Droke
Though Hylton was excited to have his new ride, it was business as usual for the big boys. When the green flag dropped, Petty leveraged the top starting spot to begin his domination of the race. He led 303 laps and buried the field by lapping every competitor multiple times. As the race hit the 300 lap mark, he had second place running Isaac pinned down three laps and third place Hylton six laps.

Courtesy of Ray Lamm
But racing luck can be fickle. With the race solidly in hand, the 43 developed electrical issues. The King hit pit road - yet the #43 stayed as P1 on the leader board for the next few laps as Isaac circled to make up lost ground.

Petty's problem could not be solved quickly, and his huge cushion quickly evaporated. Meanwhile, Isaac took over the top spot and paced the field for about the next 40 laps. It seemed Petty's misfortune became a gift to Isaac who had a multi-lap lead on Hylton. As with Petty's Plymouth, however, Isaac's Dodge experienced an unexpected problem. An oil line came loose, and the 71 was forced from the lead to the pits.

Hylton then found himself in the lead with the top two Mopars having issues. He went from being six laps down to Petty to having a three lap lead on the 43. Yet, the Dale Inman-led Petty crew didn't crater. With the electrical issues resolved, Petty resumed his assault on the track. He clicked off lap times far better than Hylton - yet he was running out of time.

Remarkably, Petty made up the three laps on Richmond's half-mile bullring. He then tried to track down Hylton's Ford to get the win I'm sure he felt he'd earned. Hylton, however, didn't waver either. He hit his marks, kept a good pace, and led lap after lap after lap for the final 160 circuits.

With Petty within range, Hylton kept the big picture in mind. Finally the white and then the checkered flags fell over him, and James Hylton was able to notch that elusive Grand National victory - the second first-time winner in two weeks.

Hylton continued in Wood's book:
Richard had trouble early with his ignition. They lost several laps gettin’ his car runnin’ again. He was unlappin’ himself to the point where at the end I won the race by 15 seconds, which on a track of that size was a good half a lap. He was within 15 seconds of havin’ a shootout… That’s the hardest I probably ever drove in my life. That was before we had power steering. And 500 laps! It wasn’t no 300 or 400, it was 500 laps. At the end of the race, you had to pry my hands off the steerin’ wheel. Had gloves on of couse, and blisters through the blisters. My hands were like raw steak or somethin’…  In the end, it was Petty and myself and was, without question, the best race I ever drove. ~ p. 229
Courtesy of Ray Lamm
Source: Times-News via Google News Archive
Hylton had to wait two more seasons to see victory lane again. He won the Talladega 500 in 1972 - a track five times the size of Richmond. But that was it - those were his two GN/Cup wins. He continued racing and ended his driving career with 602 Cup starts. Hylton continued to stay active in racing with almost 200 ARCA starts as well as fielding cars for up-and-coming young drivers.

Yet on that winter Virginia day in 1970, Hylton's independence prevailed. He was finally able to convert the 48 into a #1.



  1. I used to have that race on 8mm film I shot that day at Richmond, but it was destroyed. James had abandoned his pale yellow cars for a more garish shade. His winning car was sponsored by local Richmond speed shop proprietor, Sonny Mallory, whose Mallory's Speed Shop was located not too far from the track on The Boulevard, just a couple of blocks from the old Richmond mile dirt track.

    1. 4 years earlier, in 1966 at Beltsville, Maryland, I watched James almost score his first GN win, a race I have written about previously:

    2. Thx Dave. I know it was tough to have lost all that material in a fire - one felt by all of us interested in preserving racing's history.