News & Media

Retro Racing: Talladega win didn't propel Hillin Jr. way he envisioned

April 15, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Held off Richmond for win at age of 22 but would never return to Victory Lane

Trevor Bayne may be NASCAR's most recent racing phenom, but Bobby Hillin Jr. could very well be considered the original Young Gun. At Talladega Superspeedway 25 years ago, Hillin held off Tim Richmond to win the Talladega 500 on a blistering hot July day, and it seemed the sky was the limit for the 22-year-old.

But he never found his way back to Victory Lane in a Cup car, and by the time he was 35, Hillin's full-time racing career was close to an end. Now 46, Hillin is now a successful businessman and owner of a Houston-based excavating company.

"The problem was, it was too early. I wasn't really ready for that. I wasn't mature enough. It screwed me up in a lot of ways. But it was great to win that young and I enjoyed it. I was the first guy to do a lot of stuff [that young], a lot of records for a lot of years. But I'd gladly trade it all to be the oldest to do all that."


Born and raised in Midland, Texas, Hillin was a high school senior when he made his Cup debut in 1982 in a family-owned Buick, driving for legendary crew chief Harry Hyde. The day after his high school graduation, Hillin finished 11th at Charlotte, and eventually realized if he wanted to make this a full-time endeavor, he needed to be closer to the action.

So he moved to North Carolina and began banging on doors, helmet in hand, begging for rides. He wound up meeting Bill Stavola, and was hired to drive for the new team beginning in 1984. Hillin proved to be a quick learner, particularly on the superspeedways, posting top-10 finishes at Daytona and Talladega in 1985. And he carried that momentum into 1986, when he finished fourth in the Daytona 500 and fourth again behind teammate Bobby Allison in the spring Talladega race.

Confidence was high for Hillin when the series returned to Talladega that July, and once he got on the track for practice, he knew he had a car capable of winning.

"We knew on Saturday that our car was really special," Hillin said. "We were thinking, 'We could really win this thing. Hey, let's just not screw it up.' "

It was perhaps one of the hottest days ever for a race at Talladega, with temperatures reaching into triple digits. And the attrition rate was high as a result. Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt were sidelined early with engine issues, while Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Geoff Bodine were eliminated in crashes.

Hillin stayed in contention but also had problems.

"I remember that somebody was leaking oil all over my windshield," Hillin said. "Fortunately at that point in the race, there weren't a lot of cars stuck together. I was having to drive by either looking out the left window or the right window and following either the white line or the wall getting into the corner.

"I almost pitted under green because of it, which would have cost us the race. I ended up hanging onto it. Probably not what NASCAR wants to hear, but I hung onto it until we got a caution and we were able to get the windshield cleaned."

The race came down to a three-car shootout between Hillin, Davey Allison and Richmond, who had won two consecutive races, including the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. In the cockpit, Hillin kept reminding himself to stay calm but keep digging.

"Really, it's just lap by lap, keep yourself in a good position, don't do something stupid and yet, it's winding down so you've got to be aggressive," Hillin said. "Think about what all the other guys are going to be doing. It's no different than it is today, from that perspective."

The race was one of the last run at Talladega without restrictor plates, and even though the cars were racing closely together, Hillin said there wasn't an inordinate amount of beating and banging.

"As a matter of fact, the last lap of that race, the average speed was 202 mph," Hillin said. "We were just trying to stay in front. There were some things that probably took place in that race that were mild compared to what these drivers do today. Back then you got admonished quite a bit for doing some things like bump drafting."

But Hillin's surprise win turned out to be a double-edged sword. While he basked in the glow of the victory, it ultimately wound up damaging his career.

"The problem was, it was too early," Hillin said. "I wasn't really ready for that. I wasn't mature enough. It screwed me up in a lot of ways. But it was great to win that young and I enjoyed it. I was the first guy to do a lot of stuff [that young], a lot of records for a lot of years. But I'd gladly trade it all to be the oldest to do all that."

Hillin stayed with Stavola Brothers for six seasons but never achieved the breakout season that many had forecast for him.

"I kind of feel like I stayed at Stavola Brothers too long," Hillin said. "It hurt my confidence and it hurt my stock as a driver. So by the time we finally went our separate ways, it was already 1991. By then, my stock had kind of already gone down and I couldn't really get a good ride.

"Looking back on it, I never really got a good enough ride to build any confidence in myself, or never built any confidence in others. I got into some bad habits in trying too hard and things like that compound. What ultimately did it for me was grasping at straws."

Hillin ran a Nationwide operation for several seasons, but by mid-2000 -- his sponsor pulling out unexpectedly midseason -- he realized he needed a change.

"I said to myself, 'Hey, Bobby, you're 36 years old. You don't want to hang around this sport like this, the way you've struggled the past six, seven years, until you're 46, 47 and not be able to do anything else in life with nothing to show for it,' " Hillin recalled. "That's what ultimately caused me to move on."

Hillin had done some research beginning in 1998 on a Canadian company that did vacuum excavation work. When they decided not to partner with him, he went ahead on his own and started Texas Re-excavation in 2000, now known as T-Rex.

"They said, 'We don't need to be partners with a kid who's never done anything except raced cars his whole life,' " Hillin said. "So I said, 'Do you mind if I get into the business on my own?' So I went and bought a vacuum excavation truck and built it from there. We're up to 20 trucks now."

Two years ago, Hillin added an engineering company that designs and manufactures structures for subsea oil fields to his portfolio. And even though he returned to racing with Nationwide Series starts in 2008 and 2009, his focus remains with his company.

"It was fun but it's kind of like rolling the dice when you haven't raced for eight years," Hillin said. "I had raced locally, just playing around. It was fun, but the stakes are too high right now -- both in NASCAR and with my business -- for me to screw anything up.

"That's not my focus. I don't care to do that again. I'm really focused on the business, from that perspective."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.