Race Weekend Central

Waid’s World: Tale of the Talladega Winner Who Led a NASCAR Rebellion

Races at Talladega Superspeedway have always been noted for several things, among them high speed, the sometimes treacherous draft, nose-to-tail pack racing and The Big One – the crushing, multicar wreck that is routinely the result of it all.

And, for many years, it was also known as the track that produced several first-time winners. Or, at least, drivers who won their first superspeedway event.

Competitors such as Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lennie Pond, Bobby Hillin Jr. and Phil Parsons won the only race of their NASCAR Cup Series careers at Talladega, while several others claim the 2.66-mile track as the site of their only superspeedway triumph.

See also
Up to Speed: Nobody Can Control Racing at Talladega

One of them might well be unrecognized, if for no other reason than he was not known as a winning driver – not even a competitive one.

Rather, his legacy in NASCAR is that of an unsponsored, independent driver who rebelled against the sanctioning body and thus paved the way for better financial status for competitors like him.

The late James Hylton was, at one time, considered the scourge of NASCAR. He was the same as the majority of competitors in the 1970s in that he eked out a living racing, earning just enough money to pay his bills.

There were many like him.

In that era, ample money from sponsorship, the point fund and factory support were offered to a precious few. They were the real contenders; the drivers expected to win race after race, week after week. At most, there were seven of them.

Before Hylton became a revolutionary, he was as solid a competitor as those seven.

More on that later.

By 1976 the independent drivers determined that their time in NASCAR was severely limited because they could not survive financially. 

Even economizing as often as they did – they relied on used parts and pieces to compete – was inadequate. 

So was points racing, which was to compete for the highest finish possible to earn the most points possible. Often a high finish in the season-ending standings, and its accompanying financial reward, meant the difference between profit and loss.

To race for points meant to be cautious and avoid trouble at all costs – which was derisively called “stroking.”

But the independents had one thing going for them. They knew they made up the majority of every starting field at every race. 

So, they united and made it clear to NASCAR that they would leave the sanctioning body unless it did something to relieve their situation. And if they left, NASCAR, its sponsors and tracks, would be ruined. Who is going to pay money to watch a seven-car race?

It all came to a head in the 1976 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. With Hylton as spokesman, the independents announced that if their demands for reform were not met, they were, essentially, going on strike.

Hylton spearheaded the cause and was at every subsequent meeting with NASCAR President Bill France Jr. and others.

France was smart enough to know what the effect of an independents strike would be and, in time, he helped hammer out an agreement ensured their participation.

What was called “plan money” was created. It was a system that would present bonus money to any independent driver who entered and attempted to qualify for, every race on the Cup schedule.

Superspeedways would pay a selected amount and short tracks a lesser one. If an independent followed the plan, they could earn as much as an extra $36,000 per season – a very tidy sum for the time.

Although Hylton played a major role in this, he never took sole credit for it. 

“There were about 30 other guys in it with me,” Hylton said. “Those were pretty good numbers and NASCAR had to listen.”

In the years preceding his role as a revolutionary, Hylton was one of NASCAR’s most solid competitors. For many seasons he was a contender for the championship.

In fact, he was the runner-up for the title three times and the third-place finisher four more times. From 1966-1977 he finished out of the top 10 in points only twice.

Hylton raced for points, but that was not an easy task. Throughout the 1960s, to have any shot at the championship meant competing on the full Cup schedule.

And that meant racing as many as 52 times per year. Only a few drivers attempted it. As for Hylton, he raced in as many as 49 events each season from 1966-1971.

He won only once, at Richmond Raceway in 1970.

But in 1972, the first full year of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. sponsorship of the trimmed-down Winston Cup schedule, Hylton earned the most significant victory of his career.

And it came at Talladega, then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Circumstances played into Hylton’s hands. The usual lack of funding forced him to compete in a 1971 Mercury equipped with a 429 cu. In. engine.

“I couldn’t afford to replace the engine, but that thing was so tough you could run it in four to five races without tearing it down,” Hylton said.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: The Best Talladega Race of NASCAR's Next Gen Era?

The biggest benefit to Hylton was that Goodyear changed its tread design for Talladega. Hylton could not afford to purchase the tire, so he stuck with the older model – which proved to be a good thing.

As the race progressed, it became obvious the new tread was not working. Independent Joe Frasson was running in second place when a tire came apart and triggered a five-car accident.

The attrition rate was high. Teams began to scramble to replace the new tire, but the older one was in short supply.

“And by the time most of them found the tire, I was long gone,” Hylton said.

Hylton beat Ramo Stott to the finish line by one car length and won the most significant – and profitable – race of his career.

“This victory makes me feel good because I took a lot of abuse for being a points racer,” Hylton said. “Hell, I didn’t make the points system.

“But I hope that after this race people will realize I race as hard as I can. I proved it today.”

Hylton said drivers like him knew very little of public relations or marketing and consequently had no knowledge of how to attract sponsors.

“I was just a driver, like the others,” Hylton said a few years after Talladega. “Even when money started coming in for some teams, it didn’t for most.

“Maybe someone should do something about that.”

Indeed, someone did. And, as a result, Hylton became the leader of an uprising that has made him a part of NASCAR lore.

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.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

3 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bruce

This is why James Harvey Hilton deserves to be in the NASCAR HOF!

Steve

Great article as usual Steve. Growing up north of Martinsville I saw how Buddy Arrington and others really were shoe-string racers who just loved to race. The era of NASCAR I enjoy the most.

Irvan fan

Another good blast from the past. Thank you Steve

Share via