EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is posted in memory of James Hylton, NASCAR's quintessential "independent" driver. Hylton and his son "Tweety" lost their lives in an automobile accident shortly after Hylton's team competed in the April 27, 2018 ARCA race at Talladega.
By Gene Granger
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- James Hylton, one of the most successful independent drivers in the history of NASCAR stock car racing, defended, interestingly, his position as one of the “Charlotte Five.”
Hylton, 43, of nearby Inman, and four other driver-car owners, angered H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, vice president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, by refusing to participate in pre-race ceremonies for the “NAPA National 500” at CMS on October 8.
Wheeler, spokesman for the track, which this year had its facilities improved by $3 million, vowed that “Charlotte Motor Speedway will not be embarrassed again.”
And he spelled out the penalty for 1979. “Any driver who is not at the start-finish line for driver introductions, will not be allowed to start his engine or to race,” Wheeler said of the two Winston Cup races scheduled for next year at CMS.
He promised to start alternate drivers, those who fail to make the 40-car field, in their places, “even if Charlotte has to pay for them.”
“Humpy doesn’t run NASCAR,” Hylton said. “When you sign in at a race track, you’re under the jurisdiction of NASCAR. This is NASCAR racing, and I’m going to do what they say until it becomes ‘Humpy’ racing. He has no right to discipline anybody.
“NASCAR recommends that you attend driver introductions, but it does not demand attendance. It will be a cold day when he enforces a rule that calls for alternates. NASCAR did away with alternates after Darrell Waltrip bought out seven drivers (for $3,000) for a starting spot three years ago at Michigan International Speedway.
“After you qualify, you have earned a starting position. NASCAR is the only one that can disqualify you. Humpy has no say over who does or doesn’t qualify,” Hylton added.
Humpy doesn’t run NASCAR. When you sign in at a race track, you’re under the jurisdiction of NASCAR. This is NASCAR racing, and I’m going to do what they say until it becomes ‘Humpy’ racing. He has no right to discipline anybody. – James Hylton
J.D. McDuffie (Sanford, N.C.), Ed Negre (Concord), Frank Warren (Harrisburg), Buddy Arrington (Martinsville, Va.) and Hylton banded together in protest of a “promotional stunt” that left the good guy, sponsor NAPA, in a bad guy role.
NAPA agreed to guarantee $38,000 in an unprecedented cash plan, but when it was announced on August 8, the CMS press release said the firm would “underwrite the unique $200,000 incentive program which has been named the ‘NAPA $5,000 Awards.’"
It wasn’t until September 30 that the drivers were told of NAPA’s $38,000 participation. That was eight days before the Charlotte race. But Wheeler informed the drivers the track would pay anything above $38,000.
However, there was a catch, and this is what Hylton called “trick money.”
To receive any of the cash, a driver had to finish within four laps of the winner. The independents protested because they knew their chances of winning any of the money were slim or none. In order to be eligible for the program, a driver had to take part in driver introductions and accept an enlarged, unsigned $5,000 check.
Thirty-five drivers did, five didn’t, and they became known as the “Charlotte Five.”
Seven drivers, including one independent, received from $5,000 to $1,000, or a total of $26,000.
Bobby Allison, winner of the 334-lap, 500-mile race, had stood up for the independents the week before the fuse was lit.
“I remember the time (1975 “World 600”) when I finished third at Charlotte, and I was five laps down at the end. It’s making all those guys look like dummies.
“When James Hylton goes up there to get his check before the race, everybody in the grandstands is going to figure that he’s going to get $5,000 just to start the race. That’s a pretty grim situation,” Allison pointed out on September 30.
With victory in sight in the waning laps on October 8, Allison let his brother, Donnie, pass him and get back in the lead lap. “I hope I cost them a little bit more by letting Donnie by,” the victorious brother chirped after the race. Bobby’s generosity did cost NAPA another $1,000.
“The $200,000 figure has been widely publicized. And everybody already thinks we are getting $5,000 to start the race,” Hylton said on September 29 during a meeting of 17 teams at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway. Wheeler met with the drivers the next day, but Hylton still insisted that “it was no more than a Humpy promotion with trick money.”
Before and after hearing of Wheeler’s post-race comments, Hylton said, “We knew we couldn’t possibly win any of that money. They think more of a dog than they do of a driver. If they really cared about the driver, other than the 1O hot dogs (winning teams), they would have to put that $38,000 in the purse. Or the $26,000 they actually used.
“Humpy wanted to have a more competitive race. The race was just as competitive as I’ve ever been in. I finished fifteenth. Right on my bumper an in the same lap at the finish was Connie Saylor. It was that way through the first 30 positions all day. Would you call that embarrassing the speedway?”
We are the only major league sport without any benefits – no pension plan, little insurance, no dental care, no nothing. If you break a leg, it’s ‘We’ll see you!’ They have been talking about a pension plan since the early 1960s that I know of. It probably goes back earlier than that. We still don’t have one, and there’s no excuse for it. It would be good if Humpy got fired up about something like that. – James Hylton
Hylton took the opportunity to point out the meaning of embarrassment.
“We are the only major league sport without any benefits – no pension plan, little insurance, no dental care, no nothing. If you break a leg, it’s ‘We’ll see you!’
“They have been talking about a pension plan since the early 1960s that I know of. It probably goes back earlier than that. We still don’t have one, and there’s no excuse for it. It would be good if Humpy got fired up about something like that,” Hylton said.
“Somebody has to keep the program going,” Arrington said. “We enjoy racing. But we’re all getting older (the youngest of the ‘Charlotte Five’ will be 40 before the end of the year), and one day we’ll have to give it up. And what will we have to show for it? Nothing!
“Maybe they didn’t need us at Charlotte, but they do at other tracks - some of which didn’t have full fields this year.”
“I’ve been calling Billy (NASCAR President Bill France Jr.) for the past month,” Hylton said. “But he says he’s been too busy to talk. If they had only 1O hot dogs at Charlotte, he would have found time to talk, I’m sure.”
Outside of the “Daytona 500,” Charlotte’s “World 600” and “NAPA National 500” are the second and third richest events on the 30 race Winston Cup circuit. However, the top purses work against the regulars, as every Tom, Dick and Harry is on hand for the money races.”
Among the regulars did not qualify fast enough to earn a starting position at Charlotte were rookie Ronnie Thomas, Cecil Gordon, Gary Myers and Jimmy Means.
“Cecil came here with a brand new, good looking Oldsmobile. He worked very hard on the car and spent $800 on tires that are now useless because he didn’t make the field. We need two extra starting spots for the regulars who don’t make the field,” Arrington said, with Hylton agreeing.
The two drivers brought up another problem for Wheeler to pursue.
“You have to run 15 Late Model Sportsman (LMS) races to be eligible for big Sportsman event, such as the ones at Charlotte, Daytona and Talladega. But a rookie, you, a sports writer could buy a license, qualify for the ‘National 500’ and race without any restrictions. Is that right?” asked Hylton.
“The LMS drivers are protected at the big races. We aren’t in the Winston Cup series. And we’re supposed to be the big leagues,” Arrington added.
Wheeler has said that the protest of the “Charlotte Five” was a “dirt-track action, and we’re in the major leagues.”
Hylton says that all the independents want is a decent wage, to be able to make a living, and some of the benefits “we’ve earned in making NASCAR Winston Cup racing a very profitable business.”
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