The Frontstretch: Driven To The Past: Bobby Hillin, Jr. by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday April 12, 2007

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Driven To The Past: Bobby Hillin, Jr.

Vito Pugliese · Thursday April 12, 2007

 

Born: June 5th, 1964
Hometown: Midland, Texas
Starts: 334
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 8
Top 10s: 43
Poles: 0
Earnings: $3,599,827

When we think of drivers who hail from the state of Texas, Terry and Bobby Labonte are the NASCAR superstars who come to mind, men who hold three Winston Cup Championships between them. But those aren’t the only men from the Lone Star State to make their mark on the circuit; before the days of Kyle Busch and Reed Sorenson, there was another underage youngster who could tear up the tracks but not the bar back in the early 1980s, winning a Cup race at the ripe old drinking age of 21: Bobby Hillin, Jr. In an era where the trend is to recruit talent just out of high school, Bobby was the original “young gun,” the youngest competitor in the history of the sport, making his first start in a Winston Cup race at the age of 17 in 1982.

Bobby was born in Midland, Texas on June 5th, 1964. Before he made his historic start as the youngest driver to compete in a Winston Cup race, he earned another, less rewarding distinction. At five years old, he was found to have contracted one of the first known cases of typhoid fever in the United States. Then, at the age of ten, a tumor was found in his leg. When brought it in for surgery, the surgeons failed to find the tumor; turns out they had operated on the wrong leg.

Despite those early physical setbacks, Hillin recovered from his illnesses and decided to try his hand at racing. Bobby began his career at 13 years old, racing in the mini-stock class at Abeline Speedway. While his racing brought him early success, he starred in other sports, too; a prized football recruit in high school, Hillin abandoned any thoughts of going to college to pursue a career in racing professionally. His family behind him, Hillin’s grandfather helped bankroll his initial foray into the sport; racing had always been an integral part of the Hillin household, as Bobby's father had also previously entered cars in the Indianapolis 500.

In 1982, the junior Hillin made his aforementioned first start in a Cup car at just 17 years old. He qualified 29th at North Wilkesboro, one of the finest short tracks in the history of NASCAR, and finished 21st, 22 laps in arrears. He drove the No. 8 Hillin Drilling Buick Regal that day, and took home a whopping $805. If you’re lucky, that might buy you a set of right side tires in today’s modern era. He would run a few more races that year, posting a best finish of 19th at Talladega, a track where he would enjoy some more success at as his career progressed. In 1983, he hooked up with the Stavola Brothers team, posting his best finish in his then young career with an 11th place showing at the World 600 at Charlotte, the day after he had graduated from high school. Some guys have all the luck; I think the day after I graduated from high school, I went to Cedar Point.

Pretty much everyone ran a Buick back in the early 80's, until the advent of Chevrolet's new rakish Monte Carlo SS appeared in 1983 with it's knife-edged nose piece and integrated big air dam. The Stavola Brothers team would make the switch as well after running one most of 1983, then all of 1984 and 1985; they did so with Hillin as their driver, encountering just limited success during those years. However, in 1986, the decision was made to return to the Buick camp, this time in a LeSabre; Hillin would be part of a two car team, with Bobby Allison joining up as his veteran teammate. Before Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drove the red No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet, Bobby Hillin, Jr. drove the cold gold, Miller High Life No. 8 Buick. The racing world was predicting big things for the up and comer in 1986 as a result, and Bobby would deliver; he placed ninth in points at season’s end, the best finish of his blossoming career.

His crowning achievement in the No. 8 car occurred during the second race at Talladega that year. The track that was built on a Native American burial ground always produces some of the most memorable and bizarre moments in auto racing: Rusty Wallace flipping across the finish line on the last lap, Bobby Isaac retiring in midrace after hearing a voice telling him to quit, and the phenomenon known simply as “The Big One,” taking out half the field with one eye-popping wreck each year. This race was no different in terms of being unique. A number of crashes and engine failures decimated the field, leaving only 14 cars to finish the race; however, nine remained on the lead lap as the race wound down. These accidents and mechanical problems eliminated many of the high-banked veterans who all had cars capable of winning that day. Bill Elliott, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip……a Who's Who list of racing legends. Hillin helped trigger one of the accidents by inadvertently bumping Harry Gant, but somehow avoided wrecking himself. In position to win with the stars on the sidelines, Hillin zigzagged his way to victory, holding off Tim Richmond to snap his two race winning streak. Rusty Wallace, driving in relief of Ricky Rudd, finished third; Hillin had survived the carnage, the competition, and temperatures that approached the century mark in one of the hottest Talladega races ever held.

The following season would not be so kind. His next trip to Talladega produced a season best fifth place run, but when he returned to defend his title in July of 1987, he lasted all of two laps before the engine expired. He would end the season 19th in points, a downward trend from which he would never recover. The next year was a little better, netting a 12th place finish in the final standings; however, he would never finish as high throughout the remainder of his tenure with the Stavola brothers. Hillin would post one Top 5 a year and finish in the Top 10 several times; however, he could not seem to find his way back to Victory Lane as he had in dramatic fashion in 1986.

In 1991, he would take over the reins of the car of another young, promising driver, that of Rob Moroso. Moroso was tragically killed along with a young mother in an auto accident towards the end of the 1990 season, and Bobby experienced limited success; his best finish that year would be a seventh place finish at the season opening Daytona 500. Midway through the year he would drive occasionally for privateer Jimmy Means, then later substituted for Kyle Petty, who suffered a shattered left leg in a multi-car pile up during the DieHard 500 at Talledaga in May. After an uninspired 1992 season driving for smaller underfunded teams, he joined with longtime competitor Junie Donleavy for 1993. He was also reunited with Kyle Petty during that year’s Daytona 500 when Hillin’s car, roof obscuring the windshield, hooked into Kyle’s car after being involved in a wreck triggered by Al Unser, Jr. on the frontstretch. Hillin’s car had lost its brakes sliding through the infield grass, and wandered back up the track in front of Petty, the polesitter for the event. Petty tried to stop but could not, and ran into Hillin. A despondent Petty exited his car as Bobby Hillin profusely apologized. Petty, not wanting to speak with Hillin, grabbed him by the helmet and told him so in no uncertain terms that he didn't want to talk about the incident. Then, he comically closed Hillin's visor and walked away; sadly, it would be the most fun Hillin would have during a nightmarish ’93 season, a campaign in which he failed to score a single Top 10 finish.

Hillin would compete over the next few years driving the US Air car for D.K. Ulrich, which would become the Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford for Doug Bawel. By the late ’90s, that ride had evaporated and Hillin was off to the Busch Series, starting his own team with a moderate degree of success before losing his funding during the 2000 season. He then made one start in 2000 for Mark Melling at Bristol, a run in which he struggled to a 41st place finish; at 36, that would be the last race Hillin would run in the sport. Failing to find either funding or a ride the following year, a disappointed Hillin eventually was forced to retire from driving.

What has Hillin done after racing? Well, few things are larger than Texas or a T-Rex. Hillin combined both, launching his own company Texas ReExcavation, a hyrdo-excavation operation. He still holds the record as the youngest driver to start a Winston / Nextel Cup race, and with the new rules in place regarding age requirements, he probably always will. He was also the youngest winner in the history of the sport after his thrilling Talladega win in 1986, until Kyle Busch won at California in 2005. With such a strong start to his career, it looked like it was nowhere to go but up from there; instead, Hillin’s career became filled with untapped potential and consistent disappointment. However, his trials and tribulations as a youngster battling illness helped form his value and belief system that would help him cope with all the ups and downs. Upon his retirement from racing, Hillin said, “I’ve been in this position before, and God has always provided. He has a plan for me; it’s just a matter of exercising my faith, which stands as an example to other people."

Hopefully, God won’t ever stop forgetting to provide for Bobby Hillin, the way the years have allowed the memories to fade of the “other” driver that hails from the state of Texas.

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