20 years later, Bobby Hamilton’s Talladega victory the highlight of a unique NASCAR legacy
When it premiered on Broadway in 2015, theatergoers far and wide flocked to see Hamilton, a musical chronicle of the life of United States founding father Alexander Hamilton. Beyond the show’s unique synergy of traditional showtunes with hip hop, R&B, and other musical forms, audiences were captivated by the character of Hamilton himself – A major influence on the U.S. Constitution and the first secretary of the treasury despite having been an orphan born out of wedlock in the Caribbean.
It goes without saying that showtunes aren’t the music of choice at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama – a place far removed from the cosmopolitan conceits of the theater. But for all that’s different about the theater district of New York City and NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track, they do have something in common: The heroics of a Hamilton.
In 2001, one of the greatest races in Talladega history was won by Bobby Hamilton, who took the lead in the final laps to win a caution-free race that saw action from start to finish and featured cars four and five-wide at the checkered flag. At the time, Hamilton’s victory made for a compelling story: It was a return to Victory Lane for a journeyman driver, the maiden win for an emerging young race team, and it all served as a cathartic moment in the months after stock car racing’s greatest tragedy.
Winning a big race, however, was not what makes Bobby Hamilton worth examination. Rather, like the Founding Father before him, what makes Hamilton’s victory remarkable was how it highlighted a man’s triumph over enormous adversity and great personal challenges that others would not have been able to overcome.
20 years after his fourth and final win in the NASCAR Cup Series, it is not only Bobby Hamilton’s Talladega 500 victory that should be revisited. In order to truly appreciate Hamilton’s accomplishments in NASCAR, one must first examine the path he walked that made him a one-of-a-kind figure – One stock car racing has not seen since, and may never see again.
Bobby Hamilton was born on May 29, 1957 in Donelson, Tennessee into a family prominent in the local racing scene. His grandfather, Charles “Preacher” Hamilton, was a prominent Nashville-area mechanic who both drove and built racecars. His father, Bud Hamilton, did the very same. The Hamiltons became renowned for their mechanical abilities, which included building a racecar called “Devil Woman” for country music star and part-time racer Marty Robbins.
In addition to the gift of racing, a curse also ran in the family: In his life, Hamilton shared that a good part of his family “has half-drunk themselves to death”, and that good part included his father. Bud Hamilton was an alcoholic, and his drinking led to he and his wife separating when Bobby was just 18 months old. Although Bud Hamilton remained involved in racing despite his drinking, Bobby was taken in by his grandparents.
“He was a good person, a great guy other than that,” said Hamilton. “But he couldn’t handle alcohol and that drove us apart. My grandparents didn’t like my dad’s drinking, and that caused some problems. I guess that’s why I hate alcohol so much to this day.”
Under the guidance of Annie Mai Hamilton, Bobby was given a stable environment free from the vices that consumed his father. While Annie Mai kept alcohol away from the family business and had the family go to church, Preacher began to lead his grandson down the path of being a third-generation racer – Such as when he taught young Bobby to powerslide a car when he was only 11 years old.
“He had a ‘49 Ford with a flat-head engine in it,” said Hamilton in 2006. “He let me dirt track that thing through there to learn how to drive sideways. I’d hit stuff, but he didn’t seem to mind. He’d just tell me what I was doing wrong.”
Then, Annie Mai became ill and died, sending Preacher into a deep despair. And in that despair, he turned to alcohol in order to cope. The still-young Bobby had to accommodate his heartbroken grandfather, and found himself driving his grandfather to the cemetery where he’d wash down his sorrow.
“He’d sit there and drink, just talking to her in the grave,” Hamilton recalled in Up to Speed, a 2001 profile of him and his race team. “Sometimes he’d have me drop him off in the evening, and he’d say ‘Just come pick me up in the morning.’ He’d sleep there, right next to her. So I’d go home alone. And he’d stay the night. And I guess I’d just pick him up the next morning. That was the closest thing he could do to be near her.
“It was odd that he drank because grandmother never tolerated any drinking when she was alive. But she got sick and died, and my grandfather just started drinking.”
Hamilton characterized his grandfather as a “nice” drunk, which spared him the problems that were presented by his “mean” drunk father. However, the breakdown of his family home led to a breakdown in his young life. Two weeks into the eighth grade, Hamilton dropped out of school. Then, when Preacher died, Hamilton became a homeless teenager at 13, hitting the streets of East Nashville after the family business failed.
“I was the only one left at the house,” recalled Hamilton. “The next thing I know, all their personal belongings were laid out, and everybody was picking through it. They were selling the house, so I just grabbed what I thought was mine and left.”
As a dropout, Hamilton had to spend his adolescence ducking the authorities charged with keeping him in school. He slept in the back of cars and inside of U-Haul trucks, with only packing quilts for warmth and “meal gravy” – Cornmeal and water mixed together – for sustenance. If he needed to in order to survive, Hamilton also did unlawful things.
Years later, Hamilton remarked that the likeliest outcome for him was to become “just a thug in jail.” But two major factors ended up saving the teenage Hamilton: Thanks to his grandparents’ influence, he stayed away from drugs and alcohol even as they consumed his peers. Then, when Hamilton was 15, a chance meeting with Johnny Spicer – another racer who knew his grandfather – led to the start of Hamilton’s own racing career and him being taken in by the Spicer family.
Hamilton started out racing for Spicer, but eventually left the Spicer household when he was 17. In trying to make his own way, Hamilton’s primary interest was in building cars and engines, but he ended up racing them himself whenever his team was between drivers.
“I never really got addicted to it until the later years,” said Hamilton. “At the time I started driving, it was really something I had to do just to keep the business going.”
Eventually, Hamilton went to work as a mechanic by trade, taking a job at Martin’s Wrecker Service. But on the outskirts of Music City, Hamilton’s life continued to see many episodes akin to a classical country music ballad.
Driving a wrecker, as it turned out, could be a dangerous job if the person whose car was being towed was the ornery sort. And in East Nashville – considered the “wrong part of town” by those who are from there – Hamilton ran into several such people: One took Hamilton’s own chain and began strangling him with it. Another time, an enraged motorist who was being towed by Hamilton pulled out a .44 Magnum, pointed it at Hamilton, and pulled the trigger. Thanks to a quick defensive maneuver by Hamilton, the bullet only burnt the side of his head.
In his personal life, Hamilton got married and fathered a child – future NASCAR racer Bobby Hamilton Jr. – but his marriage did not last. In racing, Hamilton was seriously injured in a crash at Highland Rim Speedway in 1983. Another driver – “Some guy who was mad at his wife and drinking to no end was just angry at the world” – allegedly took out his personal problems on Hamilton, turning him head-on into the end of a pit row wall as Hamilton was passing him for position. Hamilton was out of racing for the rest of the year, but eventually rebuilt the car and went racing again.
Like any other racer with the chops to do so, Hamilton had ambitions of making a living in racing. But he was very much a realistic man, and that realism led to him making an agreement with his second wife.
“We said, ‘Let’s give it until 1992, and if we can’t make a living at racing, I’ll get a real job,’” said Hamilton.
As fate would have it, he ended up not needing one.
By the late 1980s, Hamilton had emerged as one of the top drivers in the Nashville area, winning the track championship at the famed Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in both 1987 and 1988. At it was at the Fairgrounds in 1988 where Hamilton would get an opportunity that would forever alter the course of his racing career.
Darrell Waltrip, three times a Winston Cup Champion during the 1980s and one of Nashville’s pre-eminent racing figures, had come to the Fairgrounds to run a race in the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series. However, Waltrip was also running a Cup Series race the same weekend, and needed someone to practice and qualify his Busch car.
“I knew (Hamilton) knew the Fairgrounds as well as I did, and so we needed someone to practice/qualify my car and we got Bobby to do it,” Waltrip told 247Sports. “I know he qualified really well in my car, and then I flew in and jumped in the car – no practice, no qualifying, no anything – and lapped the field.”
In addition to beginning a close relationship between Hamilton and Waltrip, that experience would end up launching Hamilton’s Busch Series career: Near the end of the 1988 season, Hamilton drove two races before running the full 1989 season for car owner Fil Martocci. Hamilton would win a race at Richmond and finish 11th in points, and then – like Thunder – a unique opportunity came Hamilton’s way.
As Hamilton made his way into the Busch Series, Cup Series powerhouse team Hendrick Motorsports had been commissioned by Paramount Pictures to build the cars for Days of Thunder, a NASCAR-based motion picture starring Tom Cruise, directed by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and following the success of Top Gun.
In filming Days of Thunder, cars raced by the movie’s fictious drivers – Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burns, and Russ Wheeler – were entered into Winston Cup races in order for the producers to be able to film authentic race footage. Those cars needed drivers, and Waltrip – then driving for Hendrick – recommended Hamilton.
“I said ‘You’ve got to get Bobby Hamilton’, because I knew Bobby would like that role that they wanted him to play. And I knew he’d do them a really good job, because I knew he was a pretty good driver,” said Waltrip. “… I had a lot of confidence in what he could do, so I helped him as much as I could every chance I got.”
Hamilton went to Phoenix International Raceway to make his Cup Series debut, driving the No. 51 driven in Days of Thunder by Burns – the hard-nosed rival to Cruise’s Cole Trickle played by Michael Rooker. Despite having never driven a Cup car before, and his car being at a major disadvantage due to the weight of the cameras & film equipment it contained, Hamilton qualified fifth – Impressing Hendrick so much that the cameras were taken out of the car to give Hamilton the best shot possible in the race. Hamilton would end up leading five laps before finishing 32nd due to an engine failure.
Hamilton ran the No. 51 Days of Thunder car one other time, making several laps while not being scored during the 1990 Daytona 500. Though he would downplay the role the gig had on his career (“It didn’t do a lot for me in terms of getting any high placings”), it helped get him on the Cup Series radar. By 1991, Hamilton was hired full-time to drive a Cup car for TriStar Motorsports, and he proceeded to win Rookie of the Year honors.
From that point on, Hamilton raced full-time in Winston Cup throughout the next decade, but it would be some time before he found stability: He was fired by TriStar early in the 1993 season, and he nearly faced financial ruin after he had taken out a construction loan for a house only to see his income disappear. Hamilton recovered to land with SABCO Racing, but lasted just one season before joining Petty Enterprises to drive Richard Petty’s vaunted No. 43.
Hamilton’s career reached new heights with Petty, as he would earn the first two wins of his career in Petty’s No. 43 at Phoenix and Rockingham Speedway and finish a career-best ninth in points in 1996. After three years at Petty, Hamilton joined Morgan-McClure Motorsports in 1998, winning the eighth race of the season at Martinsville Speedway.
At the time, the Morgan-McClure team was among the most well-reputed in NASCAR, with their greatest strength being the performance of their superspeedway cars. Morgan-McClure had won the Daytona 500 three times with Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin, and they had also won four times at Talladega.
On the surface, it gave Hamilton – by that point known as a driver best at shorter, more technical tracks like Phoenix, Rockingham, and Martinsville – the chance to prove his mettle as a speedway racer. But it didn’t happen: In the late 1990s, NASCAR implemented stricter rules on superspeedway engines, and new technologies in technical inspection exposed some of the advantages some teams had – including the things that teams like Morgan-McClure had been doing to go fast despite the restrictor plate placed on superspeedway engines.
Morgan-McClure did not adapt, and their performance as a race team – and Hamilton’s as their driver -suffered. In 2000, Hamilton trudged through a miserable season where he failed to finish 11 races and finished 30th in points. Hamilton left the team at season’s end, while outside chatter suggested that the 43-year old driver simply couldn’t get it done on speedways.
“People caught up with the No. 4 car, and people figured out what they were doing. And when people figure out what you’re doing, they figure out a better way to do it,” said Waltrip. “The timing was wrong. He ended up at that car, instead of it being on an incline, it was on a decline. That didn’t help his situation much at all, because he needed to be with a great team.
“He was a great driver – lot of skill. But when you get to the bigger tracks, you need to be with the right team. You need a smart crew chief, somebody who knows how to set up the car, somebody who knows how to make the car run. And I’m not sure he had all that once he ended up in that car.”
Luckily, Hamilton had a lifeline: Near the end of the 1999 season, he had been approached by car owner Andy Petree about taking over the No. 33 Chevrolet, which was looking for a driver after the departure of Ken Schrader. While Hamilton opted to honor his commitment to Morgan-McClure for 2000, Petree was again looking for a driver following the departure of Kenny Wallace after the 2000 season. Petree reached back out to Hamilton, and the two had a deal for Hamilton to drive the No. 55 Chevrolet for 2001.
As opposed to the declining Morgan-McClure team, Hamilton’s arrival at Andy Petree Racing coincided with the team starting to show signs of an upswing. Thanks to a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. – aptly-named RAD – Petree’s team was reaping the benefits of an open-book policy with two of NASCAR’s biggest and most-advanced teams in the aerodynamics field. This was most apparent in the Fall of 2000, when Petree’s cars finished second and third to Dale Earnhardt in the Winston 500 at Talladega.
Hamilton provided the Petree team with a proven race-winning driver and a mechanically-saavy driver capable of leading his crew and giving them the direction they needed to improve their racecars. And in return, Petree gave Hamilton the opportunity to prove a point about himself.
“Bobby was very motivated, and one of his things was that he had said was he was very disappointed in the No. 4 car operation, because they were known for their restrictor plate program and had wins with everybody, and that was one of his goals,” Jimmy Elledge, Hamilton’s crew chief, told 247Sports. “He wanted to win a plate race.”
“When you finally get a chance to be in Cup, and now you not only run short tracks, but you run road courses, intermediate tracks, and superspeedways, you want to prove that you’re an all-around driver – You can win anywhere,” said Waltrip. “You don’t want to be known as a road course specialist or a short track specialist, you want to be known as a driver that can win anywhere you go if you have the car.
“I think that was Bobby’s goal. I think his ultimate goal was to win Daytona, to win at Talladega, to win at Charlotte, to win Atlanta – any of those larger racetracks.”
In the 2001 Daytona 500, Hamilton’s first shot at winning a superspeedway race with Petree’s team went well. He was in the mix to win in the closing laps and ended up with an eighth-place finish to mark a very respectable start to the season. But any good feelings about that finish were short lived: In Turn Four of the final lap, Hamilton had been in the pack that drove past Dale Earnhardt as he slid up the track and hit the outside wall head-on. Earnhardt, a seven-time Cup Champion and NASCAR’s ultimate larger-than-life figure, was killed nearly instantly.
Earnhardt’s death was met with deep commiseration from every corner of the garage area, and his loss was especially felt at Andy Petree Racing. Prior to becoming a car owner, Petree had been the crew chief for two of Earnhardt’s Cup triumphs in the 1990s. Elledge, the crew chief for Hamilton’s No. 55, was a crewmember on Earnhardt’s team as well as his son-in-law and the father of his grandchild.
“I know from my side, it was real, real depressing,”Petree told 247Sports. “It was like we almost couldn’t believe what had happened, how are we going to keep going, where’s the sport going to be. Just a lot of things going on at that time. … Jimmy was married to Dale’s daughter, so there was that connection too.
“Dale was a good friend of mine – It was really a loss for us. … It was tough to get back focused onto the racetrack again.”
“It was very personal. It was one of those situations where you didn’t want to believe it at first – ‘How can this happen?’, or you never, ever expected that to happen. So when it did happen, it was difficult,” said Elledge. “… That was probably the most difficult few weeks that us as a race team and personally I had myself too.”
At his core, Hamilton was a very private person, and he did not publicly discuss Earnhardt’s death with the media (“That’s sacred ground, so you just don’t approach it or even talk about it.”). But he felt Earnhardt’s loss very deeply, and much of his concern centered around son Bobby Jr. – who at that point had made his way into the Busch Series.
Earnhardt’s death was one of four fatalities in NASCAR over a nine-month period, and Hamilton Jr. had been close with fellow Busch Series driver Adam Petty, the grandson of Richard. When Petty was killed in a crash at New Hampshire in May of 2000, Hamilton tried to talk his son out of racing.
“When Adam got killed, my dad really took it hard. I’ve never seen him so upset,” said Hamilton Jr. in 2002. “A few days after Adam’s funeral, my dad sat me down and asked me if I really wanted to keep racing. He didn’t come right out and ask me not to, but I could tell that was what he wanted.”
Despite the pall set over the sport, NASCAR continued racing into the springtime, and Hamilton and his team enjoyed early success. After only scoring two Top 10s in all of 2000, Hamilton scored four in the first eight races, including a fourth-place outing at Martinsville where he led 130 laps. But the week after Martinsville, the first race of the season at Talladega Superspeedway – a race firmly in the shadow of The Intimidator – loomed large.
Talladega marked NASCAR’s first race on a superspeedway since Earnhardt’s fatal accident at Daytona, and the race was under a microscope due to rule changes that NASCAR had made. After several dull superspeedway races in 2000, NASCAR implemented a new aerodynamic package that increased both horsepower and drag, giving drivers more power and larger holes in the air to work with, leading to a far greater ability to pull up to another car and pass them in the draft.
The results were thrilling, with large & tight packs that saw constant lead changes and cars quickly moving back and forth through the field. However, the bigger packs and higher speeds also meant a greater chance of major accidents, such as a 19-car crash late in the Daytona 500.
“It made everybody a hero,” said Waltrip of the rules package. “And you can only have so many heroes in one race.”
As the “why” element of Earnhardt’s death lingered, the new rules became an easy target. While NASCAR made no major aerodynamic rule changes for Talladega, several drivers spoke publicly about wishing to see a change. There were also rumors, sparked by comments made by Cup champion Bobby Labonte, that a sponsor-supported boycott of Talladega was in the works – While such chatter was unsubstantiated, concerns over safety were paramount nonetheless.
Obviously this was the first restrictor plate race that we’re all racing since the fatal accident that happened in February, so everybody was a little bit on edge about it in general because it brought up a lot of memories,” said Elledge. “And Talladega in the fall the year before that was the last race that Dale Sr. would win.
“I think everybody was just more aware of what can happen, because we just witnessed it in February.”
Making their way to Talladega, Petree’s team brought back the same No. 55 car that had run second to Earnhardt the previous year with Kenny Wallace behind the wheel. The only major difference was in the car’s setup: Elledge had put together an aggressive setup that he had used in qualifying, but that he had not used in the race with Wallace.
“Bobby was adamant about running that setup. Which I was terrified (of) – He wasn’t,” said Elledge. “He was the one that wanted to do it, and we ended up racing that setup. So it was quite different from a setup standpoint, and it was kind of in unfamiliar, uncomfortable areas for me. But he was the one that was very confident in it and wanted to run it, so we ran it.”
Hamilton started the Talladega 500 from the 14th starting spot in a field of drivers extra aware of the potential danger that lay ahead. In the driver’s meeting that Sunday morning, NASCAR President Mike Helton had personally addressed the field and made it clear that recklessness would not be tolerated.
His comments were followed up by Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip – whose maiden victory had been spoiled by Earnhardt’s death – who shared a poignant message with his peers: “I promise I’ll look after you if you look after me.”
The race ran, 188 laps from start to finish, without a single accident or caution flag.
“The drivers were really minding their manners and not making stupid moves,” said Petree. “It probably was in the back of all of their minds what can happen, and so that’s why it went caution-free.”
The lack of accidents did not mean a lack of action, as the field ran virtually the entire race in a large pack and exchanged the lead 37 different times amongst themselves. Hamilton led Lap 79 when he took the lead from Kurt Busch, and he positioned himself near the front of the field throughout the second half of the race thanks to lessons learned from Earnhardt’s final triumph.
“He had learned some things the prior year, he told me, from Earnhardt – racing around him at Talladega,” said Petree. “And he applied some of that in that race.”
In a concentrated effort to become a better speedway racer, Hamilton had figured out how to use aerodynamics to his advantage, positioning his car on the outside lane in such a way that it would stall the momentum of cars on the inside, allowing him to leapfrog his way towards the front of the pack.
“Nobody else was doing it,” said Hamilton. “So I put it in my glove compartment and waited until 15 laps to go.”
In the closing stages of the race, Hamilton found himself as the leader of the outside lane, with teammate Joe Nemechek behind him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. just behind them. Slowly but surely, Hamilton began hunting down the inside line led by race leader Tony Stewart through a combination of his newfound speedway smarts and specific information from his crew.
Elledge, who had yet to win a race as a crew chief, confessed he was not comfortable with the idea that his car could win. The Petree team had struggled on speedways prior to the Fall of 2000, and he still had yet to gain a complete grasp of the strength of his team’s program in 2001 – Nor exactly what Hamilton had in store.
“Bobby had a much more calculated approach to plate racing that I was not used to,” said Elledge. “… All he told me he wanted to know was ‘Just kind of count down the last laps.’ He said ‘Just tell me when it’s 20 to go, 15 to go, and when it gets 10 to go … When you get to five to go, tell me every lap. Four, three, two, one.
“Looking back on that race, when I watch it over again, it amazes me how calculated he was and how timely his move was. It wasn’t lucky – He did it perfectly and he executed it exactly like you should have. … He knew what he was doing, he spent all day just positioning himself and testing the car and testing runs and testing different people. And when it come time to go, he knew where he needed to be and put himself in position to do that, and ended up winning the race.”
By two laps to go, Hamilton had led the outside line up to second-place Kurt Busch, and he then began drawing even with Stewart for the race lead. Stewart broke away through turns three and four, but Hamilton drew back up to Stewart’s right rear quarter panel entering the trioval. The near-contact between them broke Stewart’s momentum, and gave Hamilton the momentum he needed to not only take the lead at the white flag, but clear Stewart’s front bumper and take the lead of the inside line.
Whenever they got close to the front, I’m thinking ‘Man, this is looking really good!’ And they started inching their way up there, and I’m like ‘Man, this could really work out!’”, recalled Petree. “I was thinking it was just probably gonna be one of these things – side-by-side to the finish – I never even though that he would be able to clear Stewart. But he did, and I was like ‘Oh, man!”
It was far from over: Hamilton not only had to protect the bottom from Stewart, but also account for Nemechek on the outside lane. Entering turn three, Mark Martin got a massive run on Nemechek, which could have propelled Nemechek to the front had he gone up to try and block Martin. But he didn’t, leaving just Stewart for Hamilton to fend off. With the snarling pack four and five-wide at the finish line, Hamilton’s blue and yellow Monte Carlo flew under the checkered flag to earn his fourth career win and the first for Andy Petree Racing.
The collective exhale felt through NASCAR was matched only by the jubilation of Hamilton’s crew. Petree was so enthused by his first win as a car owner that as Hamilton drove down pit road on his way to Victory Lane, he leaped up onto the hood of his car in celebration.
“Everybody was kind of going around the window and there was no room to get to Bobby. And I said ‘Well, I haven’t been looking at him through the windshield, I know if I jump on the hood and look in there he’ll see me,’” said Petree. “It was just spontaneous and just showed how much it means. I mean, it really does. People that don’t do this don’t realize how hard it is and how rewarding it is when you can finally come out on top of one of these things. It was a big day.”
In Elledge’s view, the win had been more than just a testament to the complete team effort that it takes to win on a superspeedway in NASCAR. Elledge emotionally dedicated the win to Earnhardt, who continued to be in his thoughts as he made his way to the Winner’s Circle.
“After the interviews on pit road and all that stuff, when I started to walk to Victory Lane, I remembered stopping and going ‘This is sacred ground that you’re basically going to stand on here and celebrate winning a race. Because that’s the last place Dale Earnhardt stood as a Winston Cup winner,’” said Elledge. “And that made that win more special for me because it was more personal because of the relationships that I had with RCR and with him and with Andy, the whole circle of it.”
In a certain sense, a driver like Hamilton scoring the victory was a perfect tribute to Earnhardt. Like Hamilton, Earnhardt had come from hard beginnings in the mill town of Kannapolis, North Carolina, and he too had experienced personal and financial hardships before making it big in racing. Hamilton invoked Earnhardt’s name in Victory Lane as he took a seat at the side of his car – It had been a hot day, and the weather combined with the demands of a caution-free race left him physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.
“I watched that No. 3 car last year huggin’ them cars, and then I seen Joe coming and I knew it was gonna be okay,” Hamilton told FOX Sports between breaths. “This car finished second to Dale Earnhardt last year – Bless his heart, we miss him dearly here. I learned so much from that Fall race here. And if anybody rode with me, he did.”
The victory ended a three-year winless streak for Hamilton and fulfilled his objective of proving that he could win on the biggest, fastest track there was. A fact which, once he had fully composed himself, he was keen on reminding anyone who didn’t think he had it in him.
“The media has been really hard on me with restrictor-plate racing because they more or less said I (stink),” said Hamilton. “I guess when you get in the No. 4 car, you’re supposed to win all the restrictor plate races. I think I got into it when they were beat down a little bit. But when you get with a certain type of person or group of people, you have confidence in one another and it gives you a different outlook.
“Right now, I think we can go anywhere and win.”
Hamilton’s victory at Talladega was the fourth of his Cup career, and also his last. His race team peaked with their Talladega win, and they would struggle to replicate their early 2001 success throughout the rest of Hamilton’s two-year tenure with the team.
“I felt like we were a championship team, we could win any week, every week. And then we win Talladega, and then it was almost like the air went out of the whole team,” said Petree. “I still, to this day, can’t figure it out. But after that win, we just never were as strong.”
Hamilton only had two Top 10 finishes the rest of the season, and then had just three in all of 2002. Elledge pointed the finger at himself, attributing the team’s decline to his lacking the maturity necessary to lead a team to sustained success after a first taste of victory.
“I was only 30 years old, 31 years old at that point in time. And as a crew chief, I was still too young and probably living life too much on the edge and thinking ‘Okay, now all of a sudden we’ve won a race and we’re perfect and we’re great.’ And we weren’t,” said Elledge.
“The amount of work that we had put in it to get to that point was probably correct, but the amount of work that went into it afterwards – I think I just expected it to happen a lot easier. And then once you don’t win after that, then what happens is you’re being mad at your team, you’re mad at you driver, you’re mad at your owner, you’re mad at your engine people. And I think it was just me. I don’t think I was probably ready to grow up as an adult and accept the fact that we won and accept the challenge of what it took to continue to win.”
With sponsor Square D looking to reduce their financial commitment to racing, Hamilton left the Cup Series and Andy Petree Racing at the end of 2002, moving back to the Craftsman Truck Series to drive full-time for his own team. As both a team owner and driver, Hamilton would find his greatest success in Trucks: After winning twice in 2003, Hamilton would win four races and the series championship in 2004. In 2005, Hamilton proved his superspeedway mettle once again by winning the Truck Series opener at Daytona.
By 2006, Hamilton looked to have several years of good racing left in him, and he had built Bobby Hamilton Racing to the point where it could secure a legacy for both himself and his son beyond his driving career.
“I think Bobby just liked doing things his own way. And going back to the Trucks, it’s a lot more fun to be a big fish in a little pond than it is to be a little fish in a big pond,” said Waltrip. “Bobby was very comfortable with the trucks, and he won a lot of races in the Truck Series with his own stuff out of Mt. Juliet (Tennessee). And I think that’s where his comfort level was. I think that’s what he enjoyed.
“I think he probably thought he was building something – maybe something for his son, I’m sure – To leave behind, or like Dale Sr. would have been the President of DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), Bobby Hamilton would have been the President of Bobby Hamilton Racing and his son would have driven for him.”
But shortly before the first race of the season, Hamilton was diagnosed with neck cancer. He ran the first two races of the Truck Series season, then publicly revealed his diagnosis just before the third race of the year at Atlanta. Hamilton finished 14th before stepping out of the truck and putting Bobby Jr. in for the remainder of the season, but not before he vowed to race again with the same sort of resolve that got him off the streets of Nashville and led him to becoming a NASCAR champion.
“I am not quitting,” said Hamilton. ‘I am not that damn weak.”
In spite of his valiant fight against his illness, Bobby Hamilton died of cancer on January 7, 2007. He was 49 years old.
The same questions asked in the opening stanzas of Hamilton could be asked just as well of Bobby as they could of Alexander: How does a homeless, dropout, son of a drunk grow up to race at NASCAR’s highest level and win one of its biggest races?
Such inquiries are made much more striking by the way that the sport has changed since Hamilton’s lifetime. The pathway into NASCAR has changed dramatically from a socioeconomic standpoint, as many drivers now getting into the sport do so at a young age, making their way through the ranks with a charmed background and family money behind them.
That isn’t to detract from them or claim they don’t have their own issues to deal with, but it does make for a stark contrast with Hamilton’s upbringing and career. And in the current climate of stock car racing, there seems to be little hope of another driver like Hamilton – In the words of Jimmy Elledge, “ broke guys that are living in trailer houses or doing whatever they had to do” – ever making it to the top of the racing world again.
“There’s just so much more money involved in it nowadays,” said Elledge. “If you look back to what things used to be like, there used to be 40 to 60 cars a week that were funded cars, and you were trying to find a racecar driver to drive it. Nowadays, there’s no money.
“So trying to find money, obviously it becomes more apparent when the money’s tied to a driver. Whether it’s from marketing abilities, whether it’s from driving abilities, or whether it’s from personal relationships.”
Only time will tell who the next driver to make it to NASCAR the hard way will be, and if the next truly dye in the wool blue-collar driver to visit Victory Lane at Talladega will even remotely compare to Bobby Hamilton. But in some ways, that makes Hamilton and his legacy that much more worthy of a small place in the history of NASCAR and the history of Talladega.
“Everything he got in the sport, he earned,” said Petree. “It was not always good for him – It was really tough for him to get where he had gotten. I’m sure he had to be pretty proud of what he was able to accomplish.”
Quotes attributed to Bobby Hamilton & others were derived from newspaper articles found via Newspapers.com as well as two books: Up to Speed by Bobby Hamilton with Bob Schaller and a chapter in Monte Dutton’s Taking Stock, “Nashville’s Fastest Family: The Hamiltons” by Larry Woody.