WAID’S WORLD: The Legend Of The Driver And Gadfly Known As James Harvey Hylton
I remember a race in Rockingham, N.C., in October of 1991. People in the garage area noticed an elderly man dressed in a fire suit devoid of sponsor logos. He worked on his own car, a black, dinged-up mess of a vehicle.
“If you lean on that car you’ll cut yourself,” someone said.
The thinking was he was an over-the-hill driver who intended to simply start the race, collect a few dollars and go home.
Sure enough, he completed just seven of 492 laps before he pulled off the track due to “engine failure.” He earned just over $3,400.
He was written off as just a “slacker,” someone who raced only when a short field allowed him.
But many knew otherwise. Yes, time had clouded his reputation but the fact is he was no slacker.
There was once a time when James Harvey Hylton was a serious championship contender, a driver who, with a bit of change in circumstance, could have won multiple titles.
More than that he was the scourge of NASCAR. He was the gadfly at which the sanctioning body swatted but never hit. If there was controversy, confrontation or debate among officials and competitors more often than not Hylton was right in the middle of it.
It didn’t start that way. Hylton never intended it to happen.
Early in his career he was on his way to NASCAR stardom. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1966, the season in which he finished second in the point standings.
He was second again in 1967, the year in which Richard Petty won 10 consecutive races and swept the championship.
Hylton was third in points in 1969 and again in 1970. And he was second again in 1971. By then he was established as a considerable talent. He was a not a consistent winner but was recognized as able to challenge the likes of Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and others for a championship.
But it took its toll. In the space of six years Hylton had competed in 232 races, nearly 40 per season, in an effort to win a title.
And the money he earned from points racing wasn’t nearly enough to cover costs. Without a major sponsor to make up the loss, Hylton simply could not go on.
So he drifted into the ranks of the “independent” competitors, those without significant sponsorship who could not compete at the highest level.
They seldom won. More often they raced where they could, depending upon their costs and potential financial reward.
There were much more of them than established winners – the number of which you could count on one hand.
Hylton knew the discrepancies well. He had always spoken out against them and other NASCAR policies since the heady days of the Professional Drivers Association in 1969. It was an attempt at unionization that ultimately failed.
However, by 1976 things came to a head. The rising costs of competition and the stale race purses had forced the “independents” to the verge of extinction. The only way they survived was to ask for “tow” money from the speedways. Sometimes they got it, sometimes they didn’t.
Hylton took action. Unlike in the PDA, he did not just participate. He took the lead.
“I got the ball rolling and the others jumped in,” Hylton said. “There were about 30 of us. So we had some clout.”
The rumblings of discontent began at Darlington on Labor Day weekend. They continued through the fall race at Charlotte, where the “independents” demanded a solution from NASCAR or the sanctioning body would find itself staging races with short fields.
In September, a day before the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, Hylton, now the acknowledged leader and spokesman for the “independents,” was going to announce a walkout during a press conference if NASCAR did not take action.
Bill France Jr., the president of NASCAR, was no one’s fool. He knew stock car racing would suffer with short-field races. He also recognized that it was the majority, not the minority, of his competitors who were in financial straits.
So the first “plan money” program was announced. All drivers who agreed to run the full Winston Cup schedule each season would receive bonus money for each event. More cash would be paid for a superspeedway race than a short track.
But it meant the “independent” drivers now had a steady flow of income, which reached more than $30,000 per driver per season – a hefty amount at that time.
It proved successful all around. NASCAR races had full fields and the “independents” willingly entered to receive the plan money.
“I’m not wrong in taking some credit for it,” Hylton said. “They asked me to do it and I did.”
Time passed and Hylton never again played such a dramatic – and pivotal – role in the growth of NASCAR.
But he was always there, year after year. His face got more lined and his hair turned silver but Hylton continued to compete – if on a far more infrequent basis.
He was always forthright. If a member of the media wanted a good quote, he sought out Hylton. If that member wanted a humorous anecdote, he sought out Hylton.
Hylton had family in Roanoke, Va., the same city that had a newspaper with a rookie motorsports writer.
It was only natural that the rookie seek Hylton out. The veteran driver became a valuable source. During the boiling pot of news that was the uprising of the “independents,” the kid from Roanoke, unlike many other reporters, had the full story and had it cold – Hylton told all.
They remained friends, even when Hylton was in his ‘80s and the rookie had retired.
When they met at a track Hylton would always stop, take out his cigar and say to whoever might be next to him, “You gotta watch this guy. He’ll write bad things about you.”
Hylton became the victim of cruel fate when, on April 27, 2018, he and his son Tweety were killed in a traffic mishap in Georgia. They were returning from an ARCA race in Talladega.
It marked the passing of a man who had experienced success and disappointment in NASCAR and who, when the situation arose, became a leader and helped right a wrong that threatened the very careers of so many of his peers.
“It might sound like I was nothing but a pain in the neck to NASCAR,” Hylton said. “But I always thought positive about it. People might have thought I was negative but I wasn’t.
“I was proud to be a part of NASCAR.”
And I would say, without hesitation, that NASCAR remains so very proud that James Harvey Hylton was part of its history and is now forever a part of its lore.
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