1966 NASCAR Grand National Rookie of the Year James Hylton announced this week that he will attempt to qualify for the 2007 Daytona 500, driving a #58 Chevrolet built and prepared by Richard Childress Racing, complete with Childress horsepower.
Hylton's attempt to qualify for "The Great American Race" will certainly rank as one of the top human interest stories of SpeedWeek 2007. Hylton is NASCAR's version of the Jamaican National Bobsled Team; the hopelessly outclassed group of dreadlocked dreamers that captured the hearts of the world in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. We all love an underdog, and there's a special place in our hearts for dreamers, as well. But the presence of a 72-year old man in one of the "Gatorade Duel 150" fields also raises some legitimate questions.
Hylton's credentials are beyond reproach. During his five-decade career, he amassed 140 top-five and 301 top-10 finishes at the Grand National (now Nextel Cup) level. He finished second in points in 1966, 1967 and 1971, won the 1970 Richmond 400 and 1972 Talladega 500, and earned four pole positions. In his prime, James Harvey Hylton was an outstanding racer. Unfortunately, his prime was more than 30 years ago.
Hylton has certainly not been whiling away his Golden Years in a rocking chair on the front porch. He has raced on the ARCA ReMax Series in recent seasons, finishing 18th in points last year, running 16 of 23 races. He made a single start on the NASCAR Busch Series, as well, retiring after just four laps en route to a 40th place finish at the Milwaukee Mile.
Hylton has competed in 16 Daytona 500s, with a best career finish of third in 1967. Asked why he wants to race in this year's edition, he said, "I have never been able to come to Daytona with a well-financed operation and a first-rate car. And even though it has taken over 40 years, I am finally in that position. At my age, the odds against me are astronomical, but it’s a challenge, and I love a good challenge.”
It will certainly be that.
NASCAR has stringent guidelines concerning who it allows to race on superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. The sanctioning body requires drivers to prove their ability on shorter ovals before giving them clearance to run the big tracks, and drivers younger than 18 years of age need not apply, regardless. But what about a 72-year old driver who passed his rookie test when Fonty Flock was an up-and-comer? How is NASCAR supposed to handle this?
Most likely, they'll do nothing. In truth, there's probably little they can do. Dozens of drivers have competed well into their fifties, some of them with great success. In 1989, Dick Trickle was named Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year at age 48, and nobody worried about his skills. Obviously, there's a difference between 48 and 72, but NASCAR has never parked a driver for being too old and too slow before.
It's doubtful they'll start now.
NASCAR's best-case scenario is that Hylton will give a few feel-good interviews to the national media, then go out and run last in his qualifier, just like the boys in "Cool Runnings." The worst-case scenario?
Let's not even think about that.