Racer Hamilton was just a country kid at heart

April 29, 2007|By JASON STEIN

In the bar rooms and on the bar stools and in the school hallways and in the smoky pool halls they still talk about him.

They still talk about the day the nutty, blond-haired kid from the streets of Nashville, Tenn., got a little crazy and welded the nose of a 1969 Chevelle onto the front of a 1950 Ford pickup truck and raced it up the old Louisville Highway north out of Nashville.

Of course he was going to do that. "Crazy" Bobby Hamilton was a truck guy at heart and he had to make that truck look great.

"I don't know why we did it," he would later say. "But it sure was fast!"

In the world of truck racing, there are legends and then there is Hamilton.

A street racer at heart and a heck of a pro racer with a giant heart, Hamilton was one of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's (NASCAR's) biggest heroes on the Craftsman Truck circuit, the major leagues of truck racing, and Winston Cup (now Nextel Cup), the top level of NASCAR auto racing. He drove in all of NASCAR's top-three divisions, including the Busch series, totaling more than 550 races.


The fact that he died earlier this year at 49 after a life-long battle with fellow racers and a short battle with cancer, only made his impact that much greater.

"Bobby Hamilton was a racer," said longtime NASCAR driver and announcer and racing legend Darrell Waltrip. "Racing was his comfort zone and his security blanket."

Born in Nashville, Hamilton quit school at age 13 and began his racing career at Nashville Speedway, driving on the weekly circuit where he won a track championship in 1987.

His father had been an engine builder, supplying cars and engines for many of the street racers who popped up on the highway between Nashville and Franklin, Ky.

Hamilton began to get some attention within the NASCAR community after racing in a special event in 1988 against big-time drivers Sterling Marlin, Waltrip and Bill Elliott. The kid could race, that much was obvious.

That year, at 31, and after bouncing around at small tracks in the south, he made his NASCAR debut in the Busch series - a notch below the Winston Cup series - at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1988, finishing 14th.

But it wasn't until his performance in a near-fictitious moment that Hamilton got his first real break.

One year before the 1990 NASCAR movie "Days of Thunder," Hamilton was asked to drive one of the "movie cars" in a qualifying session at a 1989 race in Phoenix, Ariz., a moment intended only to compile stock footage for the film.

The car was the Number 51 Exxon-sponsored vehicle, portrayed in the movie as being driven by the character Rowdy Burns.

Hamilton was meant to drive it to give the movie a realistic feel. However, he drove it to a fifth-place position on the starting grid for the Phoenix race.

"We had no idea it had that kind of power," Hamilton said later. It proved to be a truly cinematic moment.

The race car gave Hamilton his Winston Cup debut and even led five laps of the race before falling to 32nd after an engine failure.

A year later he was driving full-time on the circuit where he posted four top-10 finishes and won Rookie of the Year.

His first Winston Cup win came at the 1996, and he finished ninth in points that year.

Hamilton's biggest moments, though, were in the truck series where he won a championship in 2004, just one year after joining the circuit as an owner and driver. It was the first time since Alan Kulwicki's Winston Cup title in 1992 that an owner-driver won a NASCAR championship.

"I drove a pickup all of my life," he once said. "I know how to do this."

Two years later, Hamilton was slowed by something he couldn't fix, couldn't steer, couldn't control and couldn't leave in the dust. On March 17, 2006, he announced he had been diagnosed with neck cancer. That night he raced and then began therapy the following Monday.

"I love what I do. I love this business. But cancer is an ongoing battle," Hamilton said on his Web site a year ago. "It is the worst thing you could ever imagine."

On January 7, 2007, he was gone. He died just up the road from where he began racing on Nashville's streets.

"He always wanted to do things his way," said Marlin.

More than cars, the blond-haired kid loved the music of Nashville. He loved playing the guitar and he loved to sing.

Hamilton's grandfather even worked on country singer Marty Robbins's race car when Hamilton was a boy. Robbins gave Hamilton a guitar, and he learned to play it right away.

"I've been told he was quite good," Waltrip said. "Bobby will be missed. He was a great driver and a great friend."

A race car driver but a pickup guy at heart, he lived both lives and was proud.

He was a throwback. A legend. And the kind of guy they still talk about in the hallways and the pool halls to this day.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at:

Copyright 2007 Wheelbase Communications

The Herald-Mail Articles