TALLADEGA, Ala. — James Hylton, a two-time winner in NASCAR’s premier series and a competitor known for his longevity, has died. He was 83.
Franklin County (Ga.) Deputy Coroner Clayton Bryant confirmed to NASCAR.com that Hylton and his son, James “Tweety” Hylton Jr., were killed in a traffic accident on Interstate 85. The two were returning from Friday’s ARCA Series event at Talladega Superspeedway, when according to Bryant, their GMC truck and enclosed trailer left the road and made impact with a creek bank in the median.
Bryant said the call came from emergency dispatchers shortly after 6 a.m. Saturday. Bryant, who was among the responders, said that both Hyltons were pronounced dead at the scene. NASCAR officials also confirmed the Hyltons’ passing. The driver, whose name was not provided, survived the crash and was transported to a hospital in Greenville, South Carolina. The Hylton team was also involved in a highway incident last July, the father and son emerging uninjured when their truck and racing hauler crashed after a race at Iowa Speedway.
NASCAR and ARCA released the following statement on the passing of Hylton and his son: “Racing competitively in parts of six decades, James Hylton’s dedication, passion and longevity in motorsports is virtually unmatched. Hylton won the rookie of the year at NASCAR’s highest level, the 1972 race at Talladega Superspeedway and regularly contended for championships during the early years of his career. His racing influence continued into the ARCA series, where he competed as a driver and, most recently, a car owner. We have lost a truly special member of the racing family and a beloved figure among generations of competitors and race fans alike. We extend our deepest condolences to the Hylton family on the tragic loss of James Hylton and his son James Jr.”
Hylton scored his first big-league victory at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway in 1970, ending a hard-luck run of 12 runner-up finishes before notching his breakthrough win. His biggest triumph came two years later in the 1972 Talladega 500. He led 106 of the 188 laps at the 2.66-mile Alabama track.
“It has been a long time coming, and I think I got a message across to a few people, at least to my own satisfaction,” Hylton said after his 1972 win.
Hylton made 602 starts in what is now the Monster Energy Series, a career that spanned from 1964 to 2007. He was the series’ Rookie of the Year in 1966 and finished second three times (1966, ’67, ’71) in the overall standings.
Hylton made his start in NASCAR’s Sportsman ranks, and he parlayed his automotive know-how into mechanic jobs with a pair of NASCAR Hall of Famers. He first worked with driver Rex White and eventually earned a spot on Ned Jarrett’s crew during his championship years in the 1960s.
Hylton branched into the driving side of the garage in 1966, pooling his savings to purchase a 1965 Dodge from legendary car builder Cotton Owens, a fellow South Carolinian. He quickly became the series’ top rookie as an independent driver-owner with 20 top-five finishes in 41 starts that year.
Hylton said he was close to ending his career before he finally broke through to Victory Lane at Richmond in 1970. “This may open some doors for me,” he told reporters after the win. “Last year, if I didn’t make money in a race, I didn’t go to the next one. But now I’m in the running for the championship. It’s been an uphill battle all the way. If I didn’t win a Grand National (race) this year, I would have hung up my helmet.”
Instead, Hylton pressed on to become one of stock-car racing’s most enduring independent drivers. Hylton’s participation in NASCAR was occasional in his later years, and he made headlines with an attempt to qualify for the 2007 Daytona 500 at age 72.
“I am doing this for seniors to show that at 70 years old you don’t have to go hunting for an old folks home,” Hylton told the Associated Press before finishing 23rd in his qualifying race. “You can go race for a little bit. A lot of the old drivers want to come out here and hang out in the pits and see if I can do it.”
His racing days continued after that final Daytona attempt. Hylton competed in his final full season of ARCA competition in 2013, wrapping up his career at age 79. “I’m retiring at the end of the day, but my heart is wanting to keep going,” he told the AP before his last race, at Kansas Speedway.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson also paid tribute to Hylton at his retirement. Hylton most frequently competed using No. 48, a car number that Johnson has used for the entirety of his Monster Energy Series career.
“Every time I see him out there in that 48, it brings a smile to my face,” Johnson told the AP. “He got that number off to a good start. He’s truly passionate and loves our sport, and it’s nice to see him out there one last time.”
Hylton continued as a team owner in the ARCA Series, with Brad Smith driving James Hylton Motorsports’ No. 48 Ford. The team did not start Friday’s ARCA race at Talladega because of an oil pressure issue.