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Tom Higgins' Scuffs: James Hylton Vs. The Young Lions

By Tom Higgins
ThatsRacin.com Contributor

I had a scoop going that day at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October of 1982 and it was exciting.

Driver James Hylton angrily was threatening to sue the track and its famous, imaginative promoter, Humpy Wheeler, right in the middle of a big week of NASCAR racing at the speedway.

The basis for the planned litigation? Age discrimination.

Wheeler had added a “Young Lions Bonus” of $25,000 to the purse. It was to be awarded to the five top finishers among drivers age 35 and under. This group included Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Tim Richmond.

Announcement of the special pot set Hylton, then 47, to seething—or seemingly so.

“It ain’t right!” stormed Hylton. “Us older guys get out there and race, too. It’s like the speedway is saying we ain’t worth anything. If Humpy and the track have extra money to add to the purse, everyone should have a shot at it! I’m going to court!”

Indeed, Hylton consulted a Charlotte attorney.

Feeling somewhat smug, I filed the story.

Turns out I had been had that autumn race week of 31 years ago. It was a setup, contrived by Wheeler, to create controversy and extra headlines. And the fun-loving, accomodating Hylton and the lawyer were in on the scheme. There never was going to be a lawsuit.

Years later, a track official laughingly confessed of the plot to me. I should have known. Humpy, who now runs his own consulting/promotional firm in Charlotte, was a master at concocting such stunts.

“Controversy sells tickets,” Humpy often maintained staunchly.

The incident returned to mind a few days ago when Hylton, now 79, announced that he finally was retiring as a driver. A Virginia native who for years has lived and based his team at Inman, S.C., he had been competing on the ARCA circuit the past few seasons.

Coincidentally, the news came as NASCAR’s top level Cup Series teams prepared to gather once again at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night is the main event.

With the retirement—at last—of Hylton, all the drivers included in an especially-colorful cast of characters in NASCAR during the 1960s-80s are now inactive.

Fellows like Jabe Thomas, G.C. Spencer and the others quit the cockpits of race cars long ago. Sadly, some have passed on.

Early in his driving career, which began in 1964, the former crew chief Hylton was a solid competitor. Three times he finished second in the point standings--to Richard Petty in’64 and ’71 and to David Pearson in ’66.

Petty and Pearson are the winningest drivers in Cup Series history, with 200 and 105 triumphs, respectively.

Very impressive company for Hylton.

Jaunty James posted two victories in his 602 big-time starts. He won at Richmond in 1970 and, most memorably, at Talladega Superspeedway in 1972.

But going slow, not fast, was the fondest memory of Hylton some fans talked about this week with revelation of his retirement.

Early in the 1980s NASCAR didn’t have enough drivers show up to fill the field at Pocono for a 500-miler on the Pennsylvania track.

Hylton, a car-owner/driver, decided that rather than wear tires and strain his engine in qualifying, he would just start at the rear of the field.

The late Bill Gazaway, the circuit’s director, firmly ordered Hylton onto the track to go under the clock.

Hylton, egged on by some other drivers and their crewmen, took the green flag going about 25 mph and he didn’t speed up. At least not much.

As the crews and others from the garage area stood on the pit road wall laughing and cheering, it seemed to take Hyton forever to make two laps around the 2.5-mile track.

To most of those present, it was high comedy.

But Gazaway was not amused. He fined Hylton $500.

Through all the succeeding years Hylton has smilingly maintained that it was the best money he ever spent.

Here’s wishing him Godspeed in his retirement.

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