Posted: Monday January 8, 2007 4:24PM; Updated: Monday January 8, 2007 4:24PM
Bobby Hamilton overcame a hard upbringing to take a place among NASCAR's elite drivers.
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Since a friend called me with the news of Bobby Hamilton's death on Sunday, I'm like countless others out there speaking about his life and career, stuck in a state of shock. It's a difficult tragedy to come to terms with, even for those who spend their time watching dozens of drivers risk their lives going 200 miles an hour. Perhaps that's what makes those off-track deaths in racing harder to take. When you know the courage needed to get behind the wheel of a race car for a living, you begin to feel like these special men and women are capable of taking on anything that challenges them.
Hamilton wasn't doing well with his cancer as of late, but for a driver who had overcome the odds so many times in his career, you got the sense that at 49-years-old, this disease was just the latest in a long line of opponents who'd fade into the rear view mirror sooner rather than later. That cancer claimed this strong-willed man at such a young age is a sad testament to a killer that has no mercy, preying on people young and old, big and small, breaking even the most unbreakable of spirits.
Unbreakable is really the word you need to use to describe this lifelong Tennesseean. Throughout his life, Hamilton faced with circumstances that would have caused many of us to fall apart, yet for him, it only made him more determined to be a successful person. Essentially an orphan of sorts from age 13, Hamilton went from living on the streets of Nashville, homeless and alone, to becoming one of the major players in racing today. Starting from scratch, he parlayed a job driving wreckers in Nashville into a life at the track, one in which he rose up to local track champion before getting his break in the upper echelons of NASCAR. With a humble background to shape him, Hamilton had a way of befriending most people he came in contact with, allowing him to grab the opportunities needed to transform his life into something anyone could be proud of.
"He'd give anyone the shirt off his back," said longtime NASCAR veteran and friend Sterling Marlin. "He was a sincere man that genuinely cared about people."
"Bobby was one of the most down to earth people that I have ever been around," added fellow driver Mark Martin in the wake of this tragedy. "He treated everyone the same, no matter who you were or what you did."
Always an independent, Hamilton broke into the sport in the most unique ways -- getting his big break as a "movie car" driver for Days of Thunder in 1989 -- and throughout his Cup career, he specialized in doing things his own way. Rookie of the Year in 1'91, he went on to drive 12 full years in the series before switching to Craftsman Trucks, taking home a championship trophy during his four-year stint there, in 2004.
For those that have begun to follow Cup racing only in the last few seasons, you may not be fully aware of the impact Hamilton had on the highest level of NASCAR. Don't be fooled by the stats; four Nextel Cup wins pales in comparison to numbers put up by Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, and several others whose careers peaked in the mid-'90s. The difference was that those men drove for well-funded, multimillion-dollar organizations with everything at their disposal, while Hamilton specialized in bringing the best out of the underdog, taking the perennially challenged and turning them into challengers for the duration of his tenure with the team.
Looking back at Hamilton's career, three moments stick out in my mind that indicate the type of driver and person he was:
Phoenix, '96. After Richard Petty retired in November of '92, legendary Petty Enterprises went through three different replacement drivers in two seasons, none of whom were capable of restoring the team back to prominence. By the time Hamilton was selected to drive the car in '95, the No. 43 car had finished in the Top 10 a total of three times in the previous six years. For the winningest team in Cup history, Victory Lane had become but a far off dream; the last of the organization's 265 wins was back on July 4, 1984, when Petty pulled off his 200th and final win at Daytona International Speedway.