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Retro Racing: For Hylton, underdogs ruled at Talladega in '72

October 21, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Old tires -- and someone to guard them -- helped driver to reach Victory Lane

Every dog has its day. And that was certainly the case in the 1972 Talladega 500, when James Hylton drove a second-hand car on old tires to one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history.

Most of the time, racing is all about spending money to make money. But in this case, not having enough money to buy the hot setup paid off handsomely for Hylton and a number of other drivers who recorded unexpected top- 10 finishes.

"Pretty soon, the five cars in front of me were in the pits wrecked or with tire problems. That's when it dawned on everybody that the tires were the advantage."

--JAMES HYLTON

"You're king of the mountain. There's no other feeling like that. People spend millions of dollars to get a car that'll run that good."

--JAMES HYLTON

"At the time, Goodyear had the slick, non-treaded tires," Hylton said this week from a car show near his hometown of Inman, S.C. "And they came out with a new tire for that race that was treaded. I happened to have some left over from a previous race and I didn't have the money to buy the new treaded tires.

"The treaded tires, they could only run about 30 laps or so. Even though they slowed the cars down to where they wouldn't come apart, we could outrun them. We had them covered."

After unloading from the trailer, Hylton knew his car was fast enough to keep up with the big-money teams. But he didn't really realize what kind of advantage he had until the race started.

"In practice, I remember drafting with Bobby Allison," Hylton said. "We were actually bump drafting. We were running 188 mph and that was pretty spiffy for back in the day. I think I qualified 22nd. And I didn't think nothing about it.

"Nobody paid any attention to me and the old tires. When they dropped the flag, within five laps, I was running fifth. Pretty soon, the five cars in front of me were in the pits wrecked or with tire problems. That's when it dawned on everybody that the tires were the advantage."

Suddenly, the high-dollar organizations knew they were in trouble. While they had to continually pit to replace tires, Hylton was able to drive away from everyone but runner-up Ramo Stott. The only worry at that point was having their sets of tires suddenly "disappear."

"Once the other big teams found out that the tires were the difference, we had to put a guard on them to keep people from running up there and grabbing them," Hylton said. "The crew chiefs for the big teams sent people over to borrow a couple of them, but we couldn't afford to loan the tires out.

"We had enough to run the race but we didn't have enough to share. We actually had to protect what we had."

The race eventually came down to a shootout between Hylton and Stott, a native of Iowa who had finished third behind Richard Brickhouse in the inaugural race at Talladega. Hylton knew his car was faster but it had suffered damage during the race.

"The crossmember on the front of my car cracked during the race," Hylton said. "It wasn't going to come off. It wasn't any danger, except it messed the handling of my car up. He could run with me, so I was worried about the end of the race. He passed me with about 20 laps to go, and that's the first time I was passed all day."

But Hylton wasn't about to let his good fortune slip away that easily.

"I passed him back and tried to compensate for my problems," Hylton said. "When it came down to the white flag lap, I was talking to myself and said, 'Self, if this guy wins the race, he's going to have to run over the top of you.'

"I wasn't going to give it up, leading all day like that. So, yeah, I blocked him. I did everything I'd seen or known and it worked out. I made the right moves at the right time and he couldn't slingshot me."

Hylton's year-old Mercury Montego beat Stott's Ford across the start/finish line by less than a car-length. Bobby Allison finished third, five laps behind. And the rest of the top 10 was less a "who's who" than a "who's that?" Longtime independent Buddy Arrington wound up fifth, followed by Ben Arnold, Richard Petty, Henley Gray and Raymond Williams.

Talk about an underdog day afternoon.

"The feeling I had at Talladega was better than the greatest feeling in the world," Hylton said. "You're beating the million-dollar teams on a shoestring budget. Knowing at the time I had a superior car because other people had trouble with the tires, there wasn't anybody out there that could even run close to me except Ramo.

"You're king of the mountain. There's no other feeling like that. People spend millions of dollars to get a car that'll run that good. Unfortunately, that was the only 500-mile race I ever won, but it was great while it happened."

After that 1972 race, Hylton said Goodyear never again tried treaded tires in NASCAR, except for the rain tires that wound up being used at the Nationwide race at Montreal a few years ago.

Hylton, who turned 77 in August, continues to drive to this day. He's active in ARCA -- and hopes to put together a ride for the 2012 Daytona 500, 46 years after he finished ninth there on his way to rookie of the year honors.