James Hylton Did It His Way

James Hylton celebrates one of his two NASCAR Cup Series victories. (NASCAR Photo)

Even though James Harvey Hylton was victorious only twice during his NASCAR Cup Series career, his popularity earned him many close friends in the garage area and thousands of fans around the world.

For decades, Hylton and his son, James “Tweety” Hylton Jr., a longtime crew chief for his father, traveled the nation’s highways with race cars in tow. Tragically, they perished in an April 28 highway accident near Carnesville, Ga., after leaving Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

Hylton Motorsports crew chief Terry Strange was driving the hauler that housed their ARCA Racing Series car when a passenger car in front of them abruptly changed lanes, sending them crashing into a culvert. Strange suffered critical injuries in the crash and continues to recover.

Throughout his life, James Hylton wanted nothing more than to race, no matter what obstacles he faced. Born on Aug. 26, 1934, near Roanoke, Va., Hylton was one of 13 children who worked on the family farm. His interest in racing started when he began attending weekend dirt-track races with friends.

He became a competitor in the late 1950s after landing a job working as a mechanic for Rex White, NASCAR’s 1960 Cup Series champion. Hylton’s talents and natural mechanical knowledge helped White win 28 races and log 110 top-five finishes. When White elected to leave the sport in 1964, Hylton became crew chief for NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett preparing the Fords owned by Bondy Long. That year, they won 14 races and finished second in the CUp Series points. Using a bit of charisma, Hylton talked Long into fielding a car for him to drive in three events.
In 1965, the team collected 12 wins and Jarrett’s second championship. Over the next two seasons, team owner Bud Hartie fielded Dodges that Hylton drove in 87 NASCAR events. Hylton was named the Cup Series rookie of the year in 1966 and finished second to David Pearson in the standings.

His consistency continued with another second-place championship finish to Richard Petty in 1967 despite having no wins to Petty’s 27. In 1971, 14 top-five finishes and 37 top-10 results led to a third runner-up finish, again behind Petty. Hylton finished in the top 10 in 10 of the 12 seasons between 1966 and ’77.

Hylton’s first victory in NASCAR’s premier series came at Richmond (Va.) Fairgrounds Raceway on March 1, 1970, while driving his own 1969 Ford. His only other NASCAR victory was on Aug. 6, 1972, at Talladega Superspeedway.

Operating on a limited budget played into Hylton’s favor that day. When the new and expensive special superspeedway tires developed problems, Hylton used his old tires to win over fellow independent driver Ramo Stott.

Len Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, appreciated Hylton’s desire to race.

“I started racing in 1971 (while in his teens) and James came around and was one of the early people I met,” Wood said. “I remember many years later, James bought some of the obsolete cars that we couldn’t use in the Cup Series for his ARCA team. Every time we would talk about a price, he would say, ‘How about throwing in a rear-end housing’ or ‘how about throwing in some trailing arms and A-frames?’ He would work you to death, but he did a lot without all that much money.

“A lot has been forgotten about James’ driving career in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He was a mechanic before he was a racer and stair-stepped his way into driving and owning his own cars.”