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."
An engine dyno built by Robert Yates and Bobby Allison years ago...
Within a few years of his rookie season, Hylton was widely accepted as the king of the independents and seemed to be the only one of them who could consistently run with the factory teams. This ability and status was both his greatest accomplishment and his biggest regret.
"If I could change just one thing in my career," Hylton says with a rueful smile on his face, "I would have taken the factory ride that was offered to me back in 1968. That could have changed everything."
James Hylton won at Talladega in 1972, and a lot of people think that winning on a superspeedway was Hylton's crowning moment. He says it wasn't a big deal.
...still meets the needs of Hylton Motorsports.
"Goodyear brought a new tire down there and all of the big factory guys had them," he recalls. "I couldn't afford them, so I brought the ones I had at the shop from the last race with me. Well, the new tire didn't hold up like they thought it would and I won the race, almost by default."
"What I am proud of," Hylton says, "is my win at Richmond in 1970. Sure, Richard Petty had a problem early and lost five laps, but they got the car fixed and he was flying around the racetrack. He kept making up those laps. By the time the race was winding down, he was back on the lead lap and closing in on me. At the end, I held him off and won by 15 seconds. That was the highlight of my career."
The turning point of Hylton's career started in 1969 at the very first race at Talladega. As a member of the Professional Drivers Association (PDA), he elected to stand with fellow members and boycott the race due to what they thought were unsafe conditions at the new track.
"I left with the rest of the guys on Saturday afternoon because I wanted to stand behind them and the ideas that the PDA had about medical coverage and a retirement fund," Hylton says. "Looking back on it, I guess I shouldn't have done it. It was the beginning of the end. Bill France [Sr.] was mad about the walkout at Talladega, and when Bill France is mad, somebody pays. France couldn't touch any of the big names, the factory drivers, so it came down to me. After Talladega, all of a sudden, I couldn't find a big sponsor. NASCAR has ways of letting the word out about somebody they don't want around. They did it to me."
In the early '70s, things were coming to a head pretty quickly in NASCAR. The plight of the independents was becoming desperate, as they could not afford to keep coming to the racetracks. NASCAR had started a plan to pay the top teams to come to every race. This was known as Plan A, or more commonly, the Winner's Circle plan. The independents were getting nothing, except maybe $50 to get home if the promoter felt sorry for one of them. For instance, in a fall race at Martinsville, Hylton, who wasn't on the plan, finished Eighth and earned $925, while Dave Marcis, on the plan, did not finish the race and ended up in 25th place, taking home $1,775.
Hylton's shop sits in Inman, South Carolina.
Something had to be done, and the rest of the independent drivers looked to Hylton to do it. It came to a head at Martinsville when all of the independents decided they were going to withdraw and leave the racetrack if Bill France did not meet with them. The noon deadline was fast approaching when a NASCAR official approached Hylton's trailer and said that France wanted to see him.
"I walked into Mr. [Clay] Earle's office [at Martinsville] and Big Bill was sitting behind the desk, staring at me," Hylton recalls. "I sat down in a chair and stared back. Neither of us said anything; we just looked at each other. Finally, after about 20 minutes, France stood up and said, 'OK, bring them in.' From that meeting, we got Plan B, which gave an extra $1,000 dollars to the highest finishing independent, $750 to the next, and so on. If we hadn't gotten that extra money, most of us were going to quit NASCAR, and I doubt they would have grown to what they are today with only 10 cars at their racetracks."
If you visit the shop of Hylton Motorsports, James will likely be the one greeting you at
Hylton stopped running Cup races in 1993, but he never retired from racing. He has been running a few Craftsman Truck Series races here and there, and he has a complete truck sitting in his shop ready to race as soon as a sponsor becomes available. He also has been very active on the ARCA circuit both as a team owner and as a driver, finishing in the Top 20 in owners' points since 1998. Just as it was 40 years ago, everything is still put together in that little garage outside of Inman, and Hylton is still just as independent as he ever was. He even kept the little red flyer wagon, painted in the same yellow color that his car was in the late '60s, using it to haul fuel cans at the racetrack.
At age 71, Hylton hasn't slowed down much. He is attempting to qualify for races on the ARCA trail again this year, while searching for a full-time sponsor. As it was during his early days in NASCAR, Hylton has to struggle to put the car together week after week without a big-dollar sponsor. Perhaps a company like AARP should look into helping Hylton with sponsorship, since he is the epitome of an active senior citizen.
Hylton is every bit as feisty today as he was on the day he stared Big Bill France down at Martinsville, leaving us with this parting shot.
"You know, NASCAR tried to run me out of racing," he says, "but I got the best revenge on them. I'm still around."
Big John doing what he does every race weekend-serving good food to NASCAR team members. P
Big John Youk has spent 27 seasons chasing races on the NASCAR circuit, and it was James Hylton who hired Youk for the 1980 Cup season and gave the Pennsylvania native his first break as a full-time team member.
Their first race together was at Dover International Speedway, and Hylton asked Big John to be his jackman.
"We finished the race, and afterward James parked the car down at the end of pit road and came walking toward me really fast, kind of at a trot," recalls Youk. "I thought, uh-oh, what's wrong here? He's coming right at me, and he puts out his right hand, shakes my hand, and goes, 'You're the best damn jackman I've ever had.' So I was on my way then."
After six and a half years with Hylton, Youk continued on the circuit with various teams. Along the way, he worked with Gary Nelson, when Nelson was a crew chief, and he worked for team owner Felix Sabates for 13 years. In the mid-'90s, Youk began cooking for crew members, in addition to his duties as gas man for Sabates' team.
Hylton and Youk don't see each other as much as they used to, but they've remained friends
"It started with 'let's do burgers, fries, and chicken,'" says Youk. "Then it blossomed into 'let's cook other things.'" Soon he was writing recipes down on the back of business cards or whatever else was available, as others on the NASCAR circuit began to take notice.
Youk currently works as a race weekend cook for Goodyear and for MB2 Motorsports, which fields the No. 14 and No. 01 Cup teams co-owned by Nelson Bowers and Jay Frye. Cooking is one of Youk's many skills. Through the week he works as a carpenter, doing home improvement in southeastern Pennsylvania, where he lives. At one time he was also a body shop owner.
It was his role of body shop owner that allowed Youk to provide some needed, and unusual, assistance to Hylton.
"One time, when we had real glass in the race cars, James wasn't able to acquire any rear-quarter glass for the Monte Carlo bodies we were racing back in the mid-'80s," recalls Youk. "The reason was that all the [bigger] teams bought them all up from all the dealerships, and when James went to get what he needed, they were all gone. So, I came home, called my Chevy garage, and, because I had a body shop, I was not only able to get a good price, but also wipe them out of their stock-12 rights and 10 lefts. James couldn't believe it when I showed up the next week with the goods."
Youk has included similar stories, and lots of trackside photos, in a cookbook released earlier this year-Big John's Speedway Grill: Grill Master to NASCAR Drivers.
The book is full of some of the same tempting recipes he's used to feed NASCAR crewmen and drivers over the years. It's more than a cookbook, though, as Youk's broad perspective from his 27 seasons on the circuit provides the book with an unusual viewpoint.
This is certainly not your typical cookbook.And, we've decided, as Hylton did many years ago, that Big John Youk is not your typical jackman. -Larry Cothren