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Mt. Juliet mourns hometown racer
Jan 13, 2007 12:00 am
A private funeral service was held Wednesday for legendary race car driver Bobby Hamilton, who lost the race of his life Sunday when he succumbed to aggressive head and neck cancer.
It was an 11-month battle the beloved Mt. Juliet resident vowed not to quit, saying to everyone he was "not that darned weak."
Friends and family said Hamilton kept that promise and never quit right to the end. He was 49 and leaves behind an inconsolable family. And legions of fans.
"I've lost my little brother. He was my nephew, but I thought of him as my brother," Beverly Hamilton quietly said Monday. "Not just me but everyone lost him. He was a good man. He cared about people."
Hamilton began living with Beverly's family when he was a baby. She remembers him when he was a toddler running through the house gripping a steering wheel from an old pedal car and making car sounds. Beverly said they thought Hamilton had beaten back the cancer which was diagnosed in February. He'd completed in June an initial rigorous regimen of chemotherapy treatments to kill squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.
"But it came back," she said. "He fought it really hard but that little body just couldn't take it anymore. He fought to the very end."
Stunned community deals with loss
Within a day of his death, large wreath graced the front glass door at Hamilton's racing quarters on Industrial Drive in Mt. Juliet. Tucked against the door were several bouquets of flowers left by fans as tribute.
Family said he died at his home on South Mt. Juliet Road just an hour before the family was to celebrate Bobby Jr.'s birthday, which was Monday.
As word spread of Hamilton's death, it was if this stunned community – his hometown – was knocked to its knees with the knowledge never again would they run into this humble man at the local market or Cracker Barrel. Hamilton was known for his kindness to all and his refusal to let fame change him.
"He will be greatly missed as a husband, a father, a grandfather, an owner and a friend," said a Hamilton family spokesperson. "We want to thank everyone for their love and support of our racing operation and the outpouring of care and concern during his cancer battle. One of Bobby's greatest loves in life was racing and we will continue on in his honor."
In August, Hamilton told Mt. Juliet News he was "happy to be alive."
"I just love Mt. Juliet," he said then. "Mt. Juliet is my home and I'm going to beat this."
Hamilton worked hard for everything he achieved and fought the cancer with the same determination he showed on the track.
"Cancer is an ongoing battle, and once you are diagnosed you always live with the thought of the disease in your body," Hamilton said recently. "It is the worst thing you could ever imagine."
Genius on the track, humble in life
Winning the 2004 Craftsman Truck Series Championship as owner and driver showed Hamilton's talent. He won the 1987 and 1988 track championships at the Nashville Speedway on the State Fairgrounds. In 1991, he won Rookie Of The Year in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He gave Richard Petty his first win as car owner in 1996, winning at Phoenix.
Hamilton begun racing in trucks in 1996 with two events. In 1999 he purchased the No. 18 Dodge Truck team of Ron Norick. Hamilton himself began entering races in a second Dodge, running five events a year before taking the full-season plunge in 2003. His first career Truck win came at Martinsville in 2000, followed by victory at Darlington in 2001. He won twice in 2003 and then in 2004 went at it for the championship, winning a last-lap shootout at Atlanta, before taking the checkered flags at Memphis, Kentucky and Nashville Superspeedway en route to the championship.
Hamilton will be remembered also for his humility. Truck racer Chase Montgomery drove for Hamilton's racing team.
"Bobby was an icon to me," the 23-year old Mt. Juliet driver said Monday. "He was around when I was growing up and I always looked up to him. I'd always ask him for advice and just recently we put in some videos of the races and he taught me some more."
Montgomery reiterated the common theme heard on the streets Monday.
"In spite of all the fame and money, Bobby was a people person," Montgomery said. "He understood where people come from. He was his own crew chief."
Montgomery fondly remembered a time when he was 9 and Hamilton helping him through the window of a car he was tuning.
"He let me fire it up," Montgomery said emotionally. "There's a lot of good memories."
Mt. Juliet City Planner Bobby Franklin goes way back with Hamilton.
"I knew him when he was 16-years old," Franklin remembered. "He was a kid with a race car. He always wanted to race and he was blessed with knowing what he wanted to do for a living."
Franklin described Hamilton as a "self-taught mechanical genius."
"He loved Mt. Juliet," he said. "We will miss him as a friend to the community."
Gone, never forgotten
To acknowledge Hamilton's stellar career and life, Mt. Juliet Mayor Linda Elam at Monday's city commission meeting read a resolution written in his honor. Flags were ordered at half-staff.
"Bobby Hamilton was an asset to Mt. Juliet," Elam said. "He loved the city and the city loved him. He fought that cancer like he fought for every race he ran."
Hamilton's passing will impact the racing community in whole. He leaves behind his multi-million dollar Craftsman Truck Series racing facility in Mt. Juliet and dreams of one day moving up to a NASCAR Nextel Cup facility.
"He gave a bunch of young guys opportunities to drive his stuff," racing legend Darrell Waltrip said. "That's the kind of guy he was. He was a sharing, caring and loving man who could drive the wheels off a race car, and he was a great friend. My heart hurts, and I know all fans will be sad."
Waltrip said one other thing that he always admired about Hamilton was he never left home.
Mt. Juliet Police Sgt. Glenn Hamblen was a "little kid" when he met Hamilton. Hamilton used his family's towing service.
"Some people like him with fame and money think they are too good," Hamblen said. "Not Bobby. He started out with nothing and look what he became. He ended his life the same person he was in the beginning."
It was a full life for a man known as the racer's racer.