James Hylton was destined to drive racecars. Considering he learned to drive in one of Henry Ford’s Model T cars before he was 10 years old, it’s ironic that the 78-year-old Inman, S.C., stock car legend would finish up his career in a new Ford Fusion.
Indeed, it’s been quite a ride for Hylton, whose journey is, in part, coming to a close. He in fact announced his retirement from driving racecars at the onset of the season. 2013 will mark his farewell tour behind the wheel of his famous No. 48 car.
“I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while,” Hylton said. “I’m 78, and the time has come.”
Hylton has raced in several ARCA races at Iowa Speedway and looks forward to his final appearance Saturday, Sept. 7 in the Prairie Meadows 150.
“Iowa Speedway’s one of the nicest tracks I’ve ever raced on. It’s just a world class facility. It’s got a superspeedway feel, but it’s a smaller track. For a short track, it’s got all kinds of room, and you can race two- and three-wide. I just love the place. And they treat us so well every time we go. Iowa’s as good as it gets.”
“I have to really watch it right now. We’re in a real tight stretch, racing 10 weekends in a row. We’ve been using the same car everywhere. Our Iowa car will be the same car we’ll run on the mile dirts.”
Hylton made 602 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts since 1964, winning twice at Talladega and Richmond. During the race at Talladega, he recalls a fan waving to him outside of turn four on every lap.
“There was a pretty girl and she waved at me every lap,” he said. “I wasn’t too busy, so I would wave back at her.”
He also said he should have won the series championship one season in NASCAR, but the point system was changed during the season, and Richard Petty captured the series title instead.
“I scared him anyway,” Hylton quipped.
As for driving the No. 48 - made famous most recently by five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmy Johnson - Hylton said he met Johnson once during a weekend that ARCA and NASCAR were both running at Pocono Raceway. Shortly after the meeting, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knauss, showed up in the ARCA garage and met Hylton, carrying an autographed hat.
“That took a lot of courage to send your crew chief to meet me.”
After finishing in the top-10 NASCAR Cup points in 10 of 12 seasons, Hylton embarked on a new career in the ARCA Racing Series, where, as he approaches 80, has made 163 starts since 1997. He also finished 11th in ARCA driver points in 2011.
“ARCA took me in, so to speak. What a wonderful place to be in my retirement years.”
Born on the family farm in Roanoke County Virginia in 1934, right in the middle of America’s Great Depression, he was one of 13 children. Times were hard; work and food were scarce for many. His father Preston farmed and found additional work supervising prisoners who built roads as part of the chain gang while his mother Sammy managed 13 kids as best she could. Hylton worked the farm from sun up till sun down to help raise food for the family.
“I had an excellent childhood. At the time, I thought it was awful, but looking back now, I wouldn’t have traded that lifestyle for anything. We farmed the mountain behind the house. It was beautiful country. At night we’d head down to the creek with our lanterns and we’d go giggin’ for bull frogs and eels. We’d skin the eels, and filet ‘em. It was good eatin’, better than fish.
“I remember going to school where I saw city folks for the first time. We’d all bring these giant biscuits for lunch, but the city boys all had sliced bread. I had never seen sliced bread.”
He first caught the racing bug when he climbed aboard his father’s Ford Model T.
“My oldest brother taught me how to drive it. It had three pedals on the floor, instead of gear shifts. But that’s what got me into racing. I learned how to drive in a Ford Model T, and I’m still driving a Ford. That’s pretty ironic to me.”
His first racecar was also in the Ford Family – a 1934 Ford Coupe. But, to survive, Hylton climbed out of the driver’s seat and became a mechanic for NASCAR champion Rex White, and then a champion crew chief for Ned Jarrett. But Hylton decided he would give up the crew chief role and get back to the business of driving racecars. And once he got behind the wheel, he never looked back. His second place NASCAR Cup points finish in his 1966 Rookie season is a record that still stands today. He also holds the distinction of being the oldest driver to race in all three of NASCAR’s highest divisions, and of course, he holds that title in ARCA too. He made his 750th career professional stock car start at Pocono last August.
“It’s time to step aside as a driver and turn this car over to the younger generation. I don’t want to lose the Hylton Motorsports race team. I’ll be there next year as the general manager. We are definitely in the market to build up our race team and put younger drivers behind the wheel who can run up front.”
Hylton’s feelings are mixed regarding his final year behind the wheel.
“It’s kind of a love-hate relationship. If I could drive until I was 90 years old, I would. But I need to face the facts. It’s too much of a job to be the driver and manager the team. I’m excited about the future. I feel I have an honest-to-goodness chance to build my team to where we can be competitive. Next time we come to Iowa, we will have a car and driver capable of winning the race.”
Tickets for both the Prairie Meadows 150 ARCA Series stock car race, slated for an 8 p.m. start on Saturday, Sept. 7, and the Fan Appreciation 200 presented by New Holland NASCAR Camping World Truck Series clash, scheduled for 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 8, start at $20 for adults and are available online at www.iowaspeedway.com, or by calling the track’s toll-free ticketing hotline at 866-RUSTY-GO (787-8946).
Tickets are also available at the Iowa Speedway Ticket Office, located at 3333 Rusty Wallace Drive in Newton, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.