Last week was the 20th anniversary of the “Days of Thunder” movie, and it brought back a lot of memories.
Not only was it a big deal for the sport because of all the attention and exposure that it brought to NASCAR with its cast of such stars as Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall and Nicole Kidman, but closer to home it represented a career-changer for a good guy who had endured some hard times.
Nashville’s Bobby Hamilton, whose gritty, boots-strap story already read like a Hollywood screenplay, was chosen to drive a “movie car” to film some action scenes. He preformed so well that he landed a Winston Cup ride and launched his big league career.
It all came about when Rick Hendrick, an advisor to the movie, was asked to suggest a driver for the movie car. Darrell Waltrip, driving for Hendrick at the time, recommended Hamilton, with whom he was acquainted from their days at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.
Darrell considered Hamilton a good driver who just needed a break. Waltrip was shrewd enough to know what the movie exposure could mean to his hometown buddy.
Hamilton, despite his rough edges, wasn’t shy around the Hollywood stars and NASCAR big-timers. He climbed into the car at Phoenix Raceway, qualified 5th, and raced like it was a Saturday-night fender-bender at the Fairgrounds. He ran in the lead for 10 laps before NASCAR waved him in.
Somebody forgot to tell Bobby he wasn’t supposed to really be racing.
Team owner George Bradshaw was so impressed by Hamilton’s performance that he signed him to drive one of his Fords.
Hamilton eventually won Winston Cup Rookie of the Year and went to drive for Richard Petty, giving Petty his first victory as a team owner. Hamilton’s fourth and final Cup victory came in 2001 at Talladega, driving for Andy Petree. During his 15-year Cup career, Hamilton made 371 starts and finished 9th in the 1996 standings.
He built a race team in the Nashville suburbs of Mt. Juliet where he competed primarily in the NASCAR Truck Series, winning the 2004 championship.
Hamilton, known for his grit and determination, lost an exhaustive battle with cancer on Jan. 7, 2007.
Bobby’s racing roots ran deep. His grandfather Preacher Hamilton was racing stock cars long before NASCAR came along, and his estranged father Bud was a protégée of singer/racer Marty Robbins.
Hamilton traveled a rocky road on his way to success and stardom: the product of a broken home who at one point lived on the streets, dodged bullets as a repo wrecker driver and often had to borrow money to keep tires on his race car.
It’s an inspiring rags-to-riches story, including the role that Hollywood played.
Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org