James Hylton gingerly climbed out of his No. 48 car after an ARCA test at Kansas Speedway on Friday, and nobody could blame him for moving a little bit slower than his competitors.
He’s 79 years old, after all.
The oldest driver to race in each of NASCAR’s three highest divisions, Hylton was calling it a career after Friday night’s race. The Cup rookie of the year in 1966, Hylton has spent the last several years of his career racing in the ARCA series.
"I know it’s going to be very painful, especially the way this car drives. To be out there running with some of the top guys — before I’d see them disappear, now I can keep them in sight," Hylton told The Associated Press. "It’s a tremendous feeling. To know at the end of the day it’ll all be kind of like a dream. It’ll be gone but I’m going to make the best of it."
Hylton’s friends put together a car they believe can compete at Kansas, and it even sports a gold paint scheme that honors the early years of his racing career.
"I’m retiring at the end of the day, but my heart is wanting to keep going," he said. "But it’s a done deal. I won’t be back as a driver."
Born on his family’s farm in Virginia in 1934, Hylton’s family had to work hard to make ends meet during the Depression. Hylton remembers toiling in the fields all day to help out.
He started driving in his father’s Ford Model T — his brother taught him how to work the pedals. And from that humble beginning, Hylton embarked on a winding career in motorsports. He served as a mechanic for Rex White and then a crew chief for Ned Jarrett in the early days of NASCAR, then got back behind the wheel and placed second in the Cup standings in 1966.
Hylton also finished second in points to Richard Petty in 1967 and ’71, and won twice in more than 600 Cup starts: at Richmond in 1970 and Talladega in 1972. In all, the good-natured Hylton racked up 140 top-five finishes and 321 top-10s in the Cup series.
"Every time I see him out there in that 48, it brings a smile to my face," Jimmie Johnson said. "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."
When asked what he hoped to be doing at age 79, Johnson replied: "Breathing."
"I admire anybody that’s out on the track," Jeff Gordon added with a smile, "whether they’re at full speed or whatever minimal speed. I think it says a lot about someone who wants to go out there and has a passion to do that — especially now working with AARP."
Hylton announced at Daytona in February that he would be retiring at the end of the season, and NASCAR president Mike Helton joined ARCA president Ron Drager in presenting him a framed photo commemorating his six decades in racing on Friday morning.
"He’s accomplished a tremendous amount," Drager said. "We couldn’t be prouder that he chose to finish his career with ARCA."
Hylton is hanging up his helmet, but he intends to stick around the sport. He owns his own team and wants to turn it over to a younger driver, and he has friends who own a local track in South Carolina who have promised to let him get his racing fix.
"I’m not going to retire complete to where I don’t want to try a racecar out," Hylton said. "I’ll go down there in the middle of the week and do me some laps so I just totally don’t forget about it. As far as competition is concerned, I’m done."