Hylton's shop is modest compared to the giant complexes found in racing today.
Although James Hylton is, in a sense, another one of those forgotten heroes of the sport, he's still active in racing, still ready to strap into a car.
While growing up in Roanoke, Virginia, Hylton's hero was Curtis Turner, a Roanoke native who became one of NASCAR's early stars. The very first race that young Hylton attended was a Grand National event at the Roanoke Stadium in 1960. Hylton wanted to see Turner run that night, but he didn't have enough money to get into the race. He was determined, so he decided to swim across the sewer-like Roanoke River with a friend in order to sneak into the back side of the stadium. Coming out of the river, sopping wet, the two sprinted across the broad field, hopped the fence, and took a seat in the backstretch grandstand. One of the security guards spotted them climbing over the fence and came storming up the aisle. Hylton, with a smile, recounts what happened next.
"We were sitting about halfway up the stand with puddles of water at our feet when the guard stopped in front of us. 'You boys been swimming?' he asked. 'Yes sir,' was all I could say. Then he smiled and said, 'If you boys want to see this race bad enough to swim across that damn river, I'm not going to throw you out.' Curtis Turner won that night. It was perfect."
Hylton and son James Jr. are the heart of Hylton Motorsports.
It was this kind of determination that set the standard for the rest of Hylton's life.
He joined NASCAR's elite division, then called Grand National, full time in 1966 with the goal of becoming Rookie of the Year. He was successful beyond his wildest dreams. By the time the 49-race season was over, Hylton not only was named Rookie of the Year, he also finished Second in the point standings behind Richard Petty.
Over the next 10 years, James Hylton's record was as good as that of any driver who ever strapped on a helmet in NASCAR competition. In that time span, he finished in the Top 10 in the point standings nine times and eight times finished in the Top 5, including three Second-Place point finishes, four Thirds, and two race wins. During his 23-year career in Cup, he finished in the Top 10 in 301 of the 601 races he ran.
Surprisingly, Hylton accomplished all of this without help from the manufacturers, even though those were the days when the factory teams ruled NASCAR. Hylton ran his entire career as one of the so-called independent drivers. From the onset of his racing days to this very day, Hylton runs his racing operation out of his small garage in Inman, South Carolina, where he maintains a car for the ARCA circuit. Cars are built and painted there, and motors are assembled. Hylton still employs a homemade engine dynamometer that was originally built by Robert Yates and Bobby Allison.
The red No. 48 in preparation for the next ARCA event.
"Why not?" Hylton says of his dyno. "The principle is the same, no matter how much you spend. It may not be pretty enough for some of these new shops, but it works just fine for me."
When you operate a race team on a small budget, every penny counts, and parts have to be refurbished and reused. In the '60s, a part that was used once and thrown away by the factory teams was a godsend to Hylton and the rest of the independents.
Not much has changed today. The little shop on Asheville Highway still doesn't look anything like the big NASCAR palaces up in Mooresville, North Carolina, but it has been the home of Hylton Motorsports for decades. The first thing you notice when you walk in is how small it seems. There are a couple of chassis parked here and there, awaiting sheetmetal, a Craftsman Truck in the corner, half covered by a paint-stained tarp, a small refrigerator, and the ever-present coffee maker. It looks more like a backwoods garage on some two-lane highway than a shop where a modern race car is prepped to run at speeds near 200 mph at Daytona and Talladega. More than likely, when you knock on the door, it will be Hylton himself who greets you. After all, he and his son, James Hylton Jr., do 90 percent of the work there.
Remnants of 40 years of racing sit next to the shop.
You soon realize that there is more to the shop than meets the eye. You walk down a long hallway that is filled to the brim with an assortment of parts-springs hang from the ceiling on both sides of you, driveshafts lean against the wall. Each part has a little tag on it, hand-lettered to tell what it is and for what track it will be used. Nothing is new here; every part shows the wear and tear of the racetrack.
Soon you come into an addition that is almost as old as the building itself, and this is the engine department. During an afternoon in early spring, he was getting ready to move the old dynamometer out back to mount a motor on it and use a tub full of water to keep it cool while they tested it for the Nashville ARCA race. Walk through the next door and you are in the paint shop, where the No. 48 ARCA entry is getting a new coat of red paint for Nashville. Although Hylton and his son have some guys come by in the evening to help after they finish their regular jobs, Hylton Motorsports is mostly a two-man operation.
As he worked on mounting the motor on the dyno, the discussion turned to James' motivation. "What else would I do?" he asks. "It's the only thing I've ever done, and I'm good at it. Sure, I'd like to have a big-buck sponsor come in so that we could afford to lease motors from Roush, but that hasn't happened. So for now we'll keep fixing our old motors and keep racing. I may not be a rich man, but I've made a pretty good living from racing, and I guess I'll just keep on doing it."