Bobby Hamilton passed away on Sunday. It brought to a close a short and unfortunately unsuccessful battle with cancer, one of very few battles that Bobby lost during his short life here on this earth. With a laundry list of successes both on and off the track, it’s safe to say the man was a proven winner regardless of the tragic outcome of this horrific disease.
Hamilton was a self-made man who never relied on anyone but himself and didn’t take no for an answer. Quitting school when he was just 13, young Bobby lived on his own, often on the streets. He was not a Boy Scout, doing some things that he was not proud of later in life… but it was necessary for him to survive. That survival instinct served him well during what turned into an impressive 12-year career at NASCAR’s highest level.
Hamilton cut his racing teeth on the legendary Nashville Speedway, winning the track championship in 1987. That offered him the opportunity to run in a special four-car shootout with Sterling Marlin, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott, earning him his first notice by people within the tight-knit NASCAR family.
It took a few years after that for the big break to come Hamilton’s way, but the Tennessee native’s first Cup race was something that movies are made of… literally. Driving one of the movie cars for the cinema classic Days of Thunder, Hamilton was asked to try and qualify the car for the 1989 Phoenix Cup race as a promotional stunt. In a car that was obviously not up to Cup standards, certainly not prepared to either run or win the race, Hamilton not only made the field, but qualified fifth.
That led to a full-time ride with TriStar Motorsports, where Hamilton won Rookie of the Year driving the No. 68 car in 1991. Still, the equipment wasn’t the type that would get Bobby running up front week in, week out, and he spent four years driving in second-class rides before finally getting an opportunity with upward potential. In 1995, Hamilton was hired to drive the legendary No. 43 for Petty Enterprises. Taking the helm of a car that had struggled under three different drivers the previous two seasons, he posted four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes and finished 14th in points.
The following season brought more prosperity with three top fives, 11 top 10s, two poles and his first Cup victory at Phoenix, one that doubled as the first victory for Petty’s No. 43 car since 1984. That trip to victory lane easily served as one of the major highlights of Hamilton’s Cup career, as he and crew chief Robbie Loomis had succeeded in bringing the winningest organization ever to grace the sport back to prominence. he finished the season ninth in points; to this day, it’s the last time any Petty team finished the year ranked in the top 10.
In 1997, Bobby won another race for Petty at Rockingham, but slipped to 16th in points and left the team following the season. 1998 found Bobby at Morgan-McClure, a team that had spent the ’90s in championship contention with previous driver Marlin. In his eighth race with the team, Hamilton won from the pole at Martinsville, and hopes for the future were high; he finished the season 10th in points, the second time in three years Hamilton earned a trip to the Waldorf-Astoria.
But the following year resulted in only one top-five finish, no wins, and a drop to 13th in points; that poor performance began a downward spiral for the No. 4 car that has continued to the present day. After a dismal 2000 season, Hamilton left Morgan-McClure and went to drive for Andy Petree’s race team.
In 2001, his first year with Petree, Hamilton snagged his final Cup victory in the first Talladega race of the season. It was the first restrictor-plate race after the death of Dale Earnhardt, run caution-free with Hamilton leading just three laps, holding off Tony Stewart in a frantic finish to claim the victory. It was car owner Petree’s first Cup win, causing him to become so excited he actually dove on the hood of the No. 55 car in victory lane.
As for his driver, Hamilton was so wiped out from his performance that he actually required oxygen immediately upon exiting the car before he was even able to conduct his post-race interviews. After the victory, hopes for a breakthrough in his career were again high; Hamilton rose into the top 10 in Nextel Cup points, but a late-season slide dropped him to 18th in the final standings.
The following season, Hamilton’s last racing Cup full-time, saw very limited success; Petree scaled back to a one-car team, limiting the competitiveness of the organization, and a Truck Series crash at Richmond left Bobby with a shoulder injury that caused him to miss several races. Aside from three races in 2005 that he drove for his own team, that was the end of Hamilton’s Cup career.
With no top-quality Cup ride in sight, Hamilton didn’t despair; the owner of a Craftsman Truck Series team since the late 1990s, he began racing trucks full-time in 2003. In three full seasons, Bobby finished in the top six in points all those years. He won eight races in that three-year span, including the series championship in 2004 as a driver/owner, a truly rare commodity in today’s big-league racing series.
At the start of the 2006 season, Hamilton was diagnosed with cancer, but even that didn’t stop this born racer from staying in his seat. After some dental surgery before the season began, there was some swelling that did not recede, and upon further investigation, it was discovered that there was a cancerous growth on Bobby’s neck. Still, Bobby drove the first three races of the season despite knowing he had the tumor, finally handing the wheel to his son, Bobby Hamilton Jr., for the rest of the season while he underwent a rigorous series of treatments.
The treatments were somewhat successful and allowed Hamilton to return to the racetrack during the summer to watch his teams compete; unfortunately, success against a deadly disease is a constantly changing climate, and before the racing community knew what hit them, Bobby took a turn for the worse.
Bobby Hamilton was a fighter accomplished everything in his life on his own terms. If he had a goal, he sought it with dogged determination that brought him to the highest levels of motorsports. However, he was a genuine man who had no pretentions about himself or his stature in life. Liz Allison, the widow of NASCAR legend Davey Allison, said: “He didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. I think that’s why people were drawn to him. He was just very real and had a way of relating to everyone.”
If you were lucky enough to meet Bobby, he treated you the same if he had known you his entire life or had just met you. He was honest to a fault and expected the same treatment in return. He was a man of few words, but when he took the time to speak, you were well served to listen. He lived a full and fulfilling life on his terms and was successful by anyone’s standards.
The sport has lost a great man and, more importantly, the world has lost a great person. Bobby’s wife Lori, his son Bobby Jr. and his granddaughter are in our thoughts and prayers. Hopefully, they will take solace in the fact that Bobby touched so many lives and his battle brought even more attention to this dreaded disease.
Writer’s Note: Our thoughts and prayers are also with Benny Parsons, who was recently hospitalized for complications in his ongoing battle with cancer. Get well soon, Benny.
Editor’s Note: Feel free to leave your well wishes and tributes to Bobby Hamilton below. For more on what the racing community has had to say about Bobby Hamilton, click here.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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