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Waid’s World: Talladega Winner James Hylton Was More Than NASCAR’s Gadfly

James Hylton was something of a multi-faceted NASCAR competitor.

He began his career as a crew chief, transformed into a talented driver who challenged for championships and then dwarfed into a low-sponsored independent who was quick to criticize NASCAR and, ultimately, rallied those like him in a revolution that demanded financial equality.

In an oft-told story that has become a part of NASCAR history, under Hylton independent drivers – and concerns for their livelihood – were solved after the sanctioning body created plan money that sustained them and assured their continued participation.

Perhaps it is Hylton’s reputation as a NASCAR gadfly that has defined his career. But a while before he became an agitator, he was considered one of the most dependable competitors in NASCAR. 

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For years, he finished among the top 10 in points and, remarkably, finished among the top four in the standings in six out of seven consecutive years – including second three times.

He won two races, the first at Richmond Raceway in 1970 and the second in 1972 at what is now known as Talladega Superspeedway.

That race, called the Talladega 500, at what was then called Alabama International Motor Speedway, has been considered to have produced more mechanical carnage than any other in NASCAR’s history.

Fifty cars started the race. Only 18 finished, largely because of a hefty number of system and mechanical failures the likes of which had been seldom seen.

It might seem Hylton won because he managed to survive the mayhem. True, but not entirely correct. Late in the race, his Mercury was one of the fastest remaining cars in the field.

Part of the recipe for mayhem was unwittingly created after Goodyear conducted a series of tests and determined a new design was needed for Talladega.

The tests were part of an ongoing effort by Goodyear to enhance tire durability, the lack of which had become obvious after cars reached unheard of speeds on the 2.67-mile Talladega track. 

Most teams adopted the new design, but not the independents, many of whom didn’t have the funds needed and thus competed with a year-old tire. Hylton was one of them.

Trouble started early.  

After just 21 laps, eight drivers had fallen out of the race, most due to engine failure.

On lap 22, pole winner Bobby Isaac, the 1970 NASCAR Cup Series champion, was eliminated after crashing with Joe Frasson – who suffered a tire failure.

Frasson blamed the new Goodyear. “It ain’t worth a damn,” he said.

But tires went largely unblamed for most of the subsequent incidents. Instead, engine problems came to the forefront. By lap 147 of 188, 14 more drivers retired with motor failure.

It seemed that as much as tire durability was considered a problem at Talladega, engine reliability became one as well. And, again, pure speed was the cause.

When the last 200 miles began, Hylton and his only challenger, Ramo Stott of Iowa in Junie Donlavey’s Ford, were the remaining contenders for victory. They were two laps ahead of the vastly reduced field.

At the finish, Hylton was a car length ahead of Stott. The victory, his first on a superspeedway, was the high point of his career.

It also offered him a sense of retribution. His long string of excellent point finishes was not often credited to his skill. Rather, critics claimed Hylton merely cruised, took no chances and kept out of trouble. In racing parlance, he was a “stroker.”

“I always took abuse for finishing high in the points,” Hylton said. “Heck, I didn’t make the points rules. I simply raced after them as the way they were written. I always did the best I could under the circumstances that existed.

“But now, after this win, I feel good. I hope that people will realize that I raced as hard as I could. I did that today.”

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Despite his accomplishment at Talladega, Hylton still had his critics, who claimed that the unusual string of mechanical maladies removed much stronger competitors such as Richard Petty, Donnie Allison, Buddy Baker and David Pearson.

“Hey,” Bobby Allison, who finished third five laps down after a dropped cylinder began. “James won because his car stayed in one piece.

“That’s what it is supposed to do. If it doesn’t, you’ve got no chance to win.”

After 1972, Hylton never came close to victory, much less a championship. The last top-five finish he achieved in his 32-year career came in 1977. His best finish in points was seventh in that same year.

By that time, Hylton had already achieved notoriety as the successful leader of the independents’ revolt.

Much later, Hylton – always candid and opinionated – said of his career:

“People may think that because of what I came to be, I hated NASCAR. That’s not true. I enjoyed racing, and I was very fond of my years in NASCAR.

“I do like to think that I did some good for the sport.”

Hylton continued to race, primarily as an owner with sporadic NASCAR and ARCA Menards Series appearances, well into his senior years.

At 73 years old, in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2008, he became the oldest driver to finish a NASCAR national series event.

Tragically, he died on April 18, 2021, after his hauler was involved in a highway accident in Georgia en route from Atlanta. His son “Tweety” – a free spirit if there ever was one – perished also.

He was 83 years old.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Great article! Love the history

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