Some of Bobby Hamilton's earliest childhood memories involve tagging around Nashville's famed old Fairgrounds Speedway at the heels of his grandfather, Charles "Preacher" Hamilton, a colorful early-era stock car racer whose nickname was derived from his salty vocabulary. ("He cussed like a preacher," was a common saying back then.)

Preacher Hamilton could not only cuss a blue streak, he could race one, too, although his main claim to fame was as a car builder and mechanic for country music star Marty Robbins. One summer Saturday night, Robbins was leading the race when he came screeching into the pits. Preacher Hamilton, serving as Marty's crewchief, rushed over to see what the problem was. Gas? Tires? Motor? Naaaa, no problem, explained Marty as he unbuckled and wriggled out of his purple and yellow hot rod; it was just that the race was running long and he had to get downtown to the Ryman Auditorium where he was scheduled to perform on the late segment of the Grand Ole Opry.

History does not record Preacher's probably-unprintable response.

Preacher's son, Bud, also drove on the local level but became unnerved by the death of a fellow driver in a crash and joined his father Preacher as a stock car mechanic. That was young Bobby's boyhood: watching his father and grandfather build cars during the week, then going to the track on Saturday night to watch reckless daredevils demolish them.

By the time he reached his teens, young Bobby's high-speed genes were showing. He was born to race, the same way a beagle is born to chase rabbits.

"Racing has always been a part of our family," says Hamilton. "I grew up in it, I've been around it all of my life, I've always loved it. But I've gotta admit, growing up I never imagined being able to do it for a living. Driving a race car professionally . . . hell, that was for guys like Richard Petty and David Pearson. I never thought a plain ol' boy from Nashville would ever have a chance to do it."

Crowning AchievementFast-forward to Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November of last season. Bobby Hamilton, bathed in a fading Florida sunset, lets out a whoop, pumps a triumphant fist in the air, and clutches a giant silver trophy acknowledging him as the champion of NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series.

It was the culmination of a long, often-rocky Odyssey for the 47-year-old Hamilton-the oldest champion in the 10-year history of the Truck Series and one of the oldest in any NASCAR division-and he clearly savored the moment.

Those who knew Hamilton's background recognized the irony in his winning a truck championship. He once drove a different type of truck-a wrecker-around the streets of Nashville to support his weekend racing. Among Hamilton's tow-ins were repossessed autos. Often the owners did not surrender peacefully.

"They didn't like the idea of their cars being hauled off," Hamilton recalls with a chuckle. "It could get pretty wild sometimes. I've been cussed at and shot at. Once a guy jumped on the back of my wrecker, kicked the back window out, and tried to chock me with a logging chain. Finally I pulled over and said, 'Hell, buddy-you can have your damn car back if you want it this bad!'"

During the week Hamilton towed, and on the weekends he raced. He started out on a little quarter-mile track 20 miles north of Nashville, Highland Rim Speedway, which had a Dodge City reputation. Fans came for the fights and stayed for the races.

"It was tough at the Rim," Hamilton says. "The racing was wild, and after the race was over the action really got started."

Hamilton eventually graduated to his home track at the Nashville Fairgrounds, home of such colorful local legends as Coo Coo Marlin, Fat Boy Ryman, Paddlefoot Wales, Flookie Buford, and "Bullet'' Bob Reuther, Hamilton's godfather. In the late '60s they were challenged by a brash youngster who rolled in from Owensboro, Kentucky, and announced that he was the new king of Nashville and would someday rule NASCAR. His name was Darrell Waltrip.