Bobby Hamilton once jumped out of a plane while it was landing. Former NASCAR team owner Andy Petree loves relaying the story Bobby told him about that day. "It was a little prop plane and they had some trouble with the landing gear," Petree said. "It was just Bobby and the pilot. Bobby had to do something manually to try to get the gear down, but he wasn't sure it worked."So Hamilton opened the door. Moments before touchdown, he jumped out. He rolled across the runway into the grass and didn't break a thing. "When Bobby told me about it, I said, 'Are you crazy? Why would you do that?' He said, 'There's no way I was going to burn up in that plane. I decided to take my chances and jump out.'"
Hamilton learned long before that day to do whatever it took to overcome the odds. He lost his battle with cancer on Sunday, but he won his battle in life. That's what all of us should remember about him. Hamilton did what we all hope to do: He rose above his station. For him, it was a seemingly impossible climb from poverty and hard knocks that few people can imagine. As a teenager, Hamilton was homeless in Nashville, trying to find a hot meal and a warm place to sleep.
It's a story most NASCAR fans don't know. They see Hamilton as a good guy who won at NASCAR's highest level while driving for lower-level teams. He always found a way to make the most of his plight. When the Cup teams no longer needed him, Hamilton started his own NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team and won the title at 47. Two years later, he is gone. Hamilton always did more than anyone expected. And he never said "woe is me" when things went against him.
"He knew what he wanted to do and he made it happen," said Cup driver Sterling Marlin. "But at the same time, he'd give anyone the shirt off his back. He was a sincere man that genuinely cared about people." Marlin and Hamilton's friendship started long ago when both men were racing short tracks in Tennessee. Marlin talked about Hamilton on Monday during testing at Daytona, as did many drivers and crew chiefs.
Few knew him better than Jimmy Elledge, crew chief for Reed Sorenson and the No. 41 Target Dodge. Elledge was just starting his Cup career when he worked as Hamilton's crew chief in 2001. They won at Talladega that fall. "Bobby really meant a lot to me," Elledge said. "He taught me a lot of things. When Bobby came to the team in 2001, he would spend a day with us at the shop and take us all to lunch. He was a real solid figure that the team needed at the time, and I needed, too."
Elledge said Hamilton's whole life was racing, but he always managed to keep it in perspective. He remembers one day when the car had transmission problems on the road course at Sonoma, Calif. "I told him if we got good track position we could get our lap back," Elledge said. "He didn't pit and I went off. I started yelling at him. I was cussing and raising cane, and he was laughing. He said, 'Just calm down, everything will be fine.' That's the way he was. Instead of yelling back at me, he was laughing at me."
Hamilton laughed off every obstacle that life threw him. He was raised by his grandparents, but they both died when he was 13. Hamilton was on his own. He lived with friends when he could but spent many nights on the streets. When he learned to drive, his first experience with cars was towing them. He drove a wrecker, but his dream was to race.
He got a chance to drive a friend's late-model car in Nashville when Hamilton was 17. It would take 15 years, and a call from Hollywood, for Hamilton to get his shot in Cup.Movie producers wanted Hamilton to race at Phoenix in 1989 and provide footage for Days of Thunder. Racing hard wasn't part of the plan. Just take some laps for the movie.
Hamilton had other ideas. He qualified fifth and led a few laps before heading to the garage, but he made his point. Hamilton was no movie stuntman. He was a racer. But racing for top teams never came his way. Hamilton's career was similar to his life. He took a difficult situation and made it better.
He finished 14th for Petty Enterprises in 1995, one year after the team was 32nd without him. He guided the famous No. 43 to ninth in the standings in 1996. Hamilton joined Petree's fledgling team in 2001 and earned his last Cup victory with the win at Talladega.
"I remember running down pit road and diving on the hood of the car," said Petree, now a NASCAR analyst for ESPN. "I banged on the windshield as everyone was grabbing at him through the window. He moved up and looked at me and just nodded his head, sort of saying, 'We did it.' I'll never forget it."
NASCAR won't forget Hamilton. Life is what you make it, and Hamilton made his life special. "Nothing came easy for Bobby," Petree said. "But he overcame it all and became a success at every level. My goodness, I'm going to miss him. The sport will miss him. To me, he's what NASCAR is all about."