Hamilton, a short-track racer at heart who rose to success as a driver and team owner at NASCAR’s highest levels, died Sunday at his home in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Hamilton, 49, was diagnosed with cancer in early 2006.
Hamilton won races in all three of stock-car racing’s top series and was the champion of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2004. He won four races in Cup and one in the Busch Series and was the owner of a Truck Series team based near his home.Bobby
“Bobby Hamilton was a good man and he was a great racer,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, who was part of Hamilton’s improbably entrée to the Cup circuit. “He was a laid-back kind of guy, but he was intense when he got ready to climb in the car.”
Hamilton stunned the NASCAR community in March when he announced before a Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway that he had cancer in his neck.
After having oral surgery in November 2005, Hamilton said swelling in his neck did not subside. Just before beginning the 2006 Truck season at Daytona, he had tests that led to the diagnosis. He ran the season’s first three races, including the one at Atlanta the night he revealed his diagnosis, then got out of the truck to begin treatments.
“I will be back,” Hamilton vowed. “I am not quitting. ...I love what I do, I love this business. NASCAR has been good to me and I just don’t feel comfortable when I am not around it.”
Hamilton spoke about his treatments in August, saying that at one point his neck was blistered and swollen so badly he could not swallow his own saliva.
“I don’t mind telling you I’ve sat up and looked at Lori (his finacee) and said, ‘I just don’t understand it,’ and then burst into tears,” Hamilton admits. “It’s like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’”
While his doctors were encouraged by CAT scans, Hamilton opted to have a surgical procedure to make sure the cancer was gone. “I don’t want to go to bed at night thinking we half-assed it,” he said.
The family announced in late December that microscopic cancer cells had been found and that Hamilton’s treatments were continuing.
Hamilton quit school at 13 and went racing at the legendary Nashville Speedway, a proving ground for dozens of other NASCAR stars. Hamilton won the track title there in 1987 and beat Darrell Waltrip, Sterling Marlin and Bill Elliott in a four-car “super showdown” staged at the track the following year.
“I knew Bobby when he had absolutely nothing, and I saw him take his talent and create a career without ever squandering anything,” said Norm Partin, a longtime friend who now promotes races in Nashville. “He never became somebody he wasn’t before he got to the top.
"To his last day, you felt like you could call Bobby anytime or anywhere and ask for a favor and he’d do it for you. Very few people who hit the big time react that way. Bobby never lost any of his honesty and integrity.”
When the movie “Days of Thunder” was being made, Hendrick needed to hire drivers for cars that would be fitted with cameras to shoot footage for the film starring Tom Cruise. Waltrip was driving for Hendrick’s team at the time and suggested Hamilton.
“We put Bobby in the car and he ran like Jack the Bear,” Hendrick said of a race at Phoenix in 1989. “He qualified fifth and a lot of people started to look at him after that.”
Hamilton had won a Busch race at Richmond earlier that fall, and when he led five laps in the Cup race at Phoenix he gained a foothold in the sport. By 1991 he had a Cup ride with Tri-Star Motorsports, and went on to run in 371 races in the sport’s top series.
He got his first victory in the No. 43 Pontiac owned by Petty Enterprises in October 1996 at, ironically, Phoenix. He won at Rockingham for the Petty team the next year, then at Martinsville in 1998 while driving for Larry McClure’s team.
"It is a terrible loss," McClure told NASCAR.com. “Bobby was kind of what racing was supposed to be about. He was a racer's racer. He understood racing and the race cars, the event. He really understood racing itself.”
Hamilton’s fourth Cup win came at Talladega in 2001 while driving for Andy Petree Racing.
He won 10 races in the Truck Series, including four in 2004 when he won the title with his own team. Hamilton’s son, Bobby Jr., took over in the No. 18 Truck when Hamilton got out of that ride when he began cancer treatments. Monday is Bobby Jr.’s birthday.