Name: Charles Robert Hamilton Sr.
Birthdate: May 29, 1957
Died: Jan. 7, 2007
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Cup Series Debut: Autoworks 500k – Phoenix, Ariz. 1989
Top Fives: 20
Top 10s: 67
Career Highlights: Began his NASCAR career by driving one of the movie cars for the 1990 motion picture, Days of Thunder, Qualifying a car that was supposedly uncompetitive (since it was a filming rig) in fifth position for the 1989 Autoworks 500k at Phoenix. 1991 Winston Cup Rookie of the year, broke Petty Enterprises’ 13 year-long losing streak at Phoenix in 1996. Bookended his career by claiming the 2004 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship and the 2005 Daytona 250.
Charles Robert “Bobby” Hamilton Sr. started his racing career similar to a man before him – Dale Earnhardt – by dropping out of school at age 13. He laid the foundation for a career at Nashville Speedway, now known as the Music City Motorplex. Nashville Speedway was raced by many NASCAR legends such as Darrell Waltrip, Coo Coo Marlin and part-time driver/country singer Marty Robbins. Bobby would gain the attention of many in the NASCAR community when he competed in a 1988 event starring Cup luminaries Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin at his hometown track.
Before he won the track championship in 1987, Hamilton would have more than his fair share of close calls, none of them involving a racecar. Before he started driving, he worked as a repo man. Bobby ran into someone who objected to his presence during one particular job and was introduced to the business end of .44 Magnum. The man fired at Bobby, literally parting his mop of hair with Inspector Callahan’s cannon of choice.
As many know, Hamilton got his first NASCAR start in the 1989 Autoworks 500k at Phoenix International Raceway. The No. 51 Exxon car was owned by Rick Hendrick, and was remarkably competitive for being little more than a 650-horsepower camera dolly. Hamilton ran well and even led five laps during the event. The movie car’s participation was frowned upon by many, particularly Earnhardt. During the race, Rusty Wallace was spun out by a rookie driver, and NASCAR was already heavily scrutinizing the performance of the movie cars that were in the field.
On lap 215, the car was parked with a “motor problem.” Greg Sacks had retired the other movie car in the film, the No. 46 City Chevrolet, with handling issues 55 laps earlier. Hamilton showed up in Daytona with Hendrick again in 1990, driving the No. 51 Mello Yello Chevrolet to film the final sequences of Days of Thunder. He made a handful of “official” starts in 1990 with a couple of small outfits, with his first full season being 1991, driving TriStar Motorsports’ blindingly fluorescent yellow No. 68 Country-Time Lemonade Oldsmobile. He would win Rookie of the Year in 1991 with that car and posted a best finish of sixth at Rockingham in the fall.
Rockingham would prove to be a popular venue for Hamilton. He would have won the 1996 spring event, but a late-race tussle with eventual winner Earnhardt (one of those “rattlin’ his cage” deals) would delay the celebration until the end of the season, where he would return the to the site of his first career start in 1989. It wasn’t a movie car this time, but the King’s Chariot that was rolled into victory lane for the first time in over 13 years. Bobby Hamilton Sr., driving the famous STP No. 43, won the Dura Lube 500k at Phoenix.
It was the first win for Petty Enterprises since Richard Petty‘s win at Charlotte in the fall of 1983. The King, normally reserved and in control of his emotions was choked up – as was his cousin and crew chief Dale Inman, who had retired to the restroom to hide quite a display of emotion. It was also the first win for crew chief Robbie Loomis, who would go on to win a championship with Jeff Gordon just five years later. Rockingham would eventually be the site of his second career win in the fall of 1997.
Hamilton’s next win would come in 1998, driving the No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet for Morgan-McClure Motorsports. It was a dominating performance for the single car effort from Abingdon, Va. Hamilton lead 378 of 500 laps en route to a nearly seven-second victory over future Truck Series competitor and champion Ted Musgrave. It was an important win that season, as Hamilton was one of only six drivers not driving for Hendrick Motorsports or Roush Racing to win a race that year. It would also be the last time the Morgan-McClure No. 4 car would finish the in the top 10 in points to date.
Bobby’s final Nextel Cup win would come three years later at Talladega. Casting a shadow over the race was the fact it was the first restrictor-plate race since Earnhardt’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Introducing even more irony into the mix, Hamilton was now driving for Earnhardt’s former crew chief, Andy Petree, with whom the Intimidator won his sixth and seventh titles. Hamilton won a wild last-lap shootout by .163 seconds over Tony Stewart, and not much more over Kurt Busch, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte. Petree greeted Hamilton on pit road with a belly flop onto the hood of the No. 55 Square D Chevrolet.
Hamilton had now won on a short track, a flat speedway, a banked oval and now the biggest of them all, the 2.66-mile superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. Hamilton would drive one more season for Petree, leaving to start his own Craftsman Truck Series team in 2003.
In Hamilton’s first season as owner and driver, he won two races and finished sixth in points. In 2004 he won four races, taking the championship by only 46 points over Dennis Setzer. Hamilton celebrated the championship on stage with his son Bobby Jr. and his new granddaughter, Haylie Denise. The 2005 season would get started off on the right foot with a controversial win over Jimmy Spencer at the season-opening Florida Dodge Dealers Daytona 250. He would end the year sixth in points and run only three races in 2006. The abbreviated season was the result of his being diagnosed with head and neck cancer.
Hamilton’s cancer was in such a state that he needed to undergo intense chemotherapy immediately. His emotional press conference prior to his final start at Atlanta will be forgotten by few who saw it. Prior to qualifying for the event, fellow competitor Martin, who Hamilton held off to win his first career race in 1996, stopped by to offer some words of encouragement: “Kick its ass.”
Hamilton thanked him for his support, and remarked to a reporter, “that’s probably the last time I’ll ever talk to Mark Martin.” Those cryptic comments came to bear on Jan. 7, 2007, when Bobby Hamilton would pass away from the cancer that had been diagnosed less than a year earlier.
Hamilton always thought of himself as a regular guy who had an extraordinary job… because he was. He was fully capable and often seen working on his own truck. If the engine tuner was not on hand, he would pop off the valve covers and adjust the valves. If a gear needed changing, he would do that, too. Even while undergoing chemotherapy, he would show up to the shop and try and work on his trucks that were now being driven by his son Bobby Jr.
All told, Bobby Hamilton accomplished a lot in his career. He didn’t always have the best equipment, but he more than made the most of it. From winning Rookie of the Year in an underfunded Oldsmobile to restoring a King to his former glory, from a picture-perfect race at a home team’s track to a caution-free race at a track known for producing the largest junkyards in the state of Alabama. That his career was cut short is tragic indeed, but even more so was the loss of a husband to his wife Lori, a father and mentor to Bobby Jr. and a grandfather to Haylie Denise.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.