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Teen Terrors of the '70s: Bobby Hilton

28 Aug 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

A lot of kids are born into racing families and follow their fathers into the sport, but few can claim the quick start that launched Bobby Hilton into his career as a teenage Top Fuel driver in the early 1970s.

His dad, John, drove Top Gassers when Bobby was just a tyke growing up in Cincinnati, and when Dad graduated into a Chevy-powered Top Fueler in the late 1960s, Bobby was always there, wrench and dreams in hand.

“From the time I was 10 years old, racing was all I knew and all I wanted to do,” he remembers. “I didn’t play baseball or fool with bicycles like other kids my age; I just wanted to work on cars and go drag racing. I remember being at Indy with my dad when they still had roller starters in the pits. My dad would prop me up in the car with a pillow behind my back so that I could start the race car. By the time I was 15, I was bugging the hell out of him to let me drive the car; I wouldn’t leave him alone.

“We ran a lot of IHRA and UDRA stuff, but we’d make it to Columbus and Indy,” he added. “Seems like a lot of guys around here were fooling around with the Chevys – [Jim] Bucher was from right there in Cincinnati, Powell & Burnett from South Carolina – because that was the affordable thing to do. It was all iron-motor stuff: truck blocks with stock cranks, steel heads, and stock oil pans. You could put one together for a fraction of the cost of other engines, and they ran well.”

By the time he was 16, Hilton probably knew more about racing than most kids could ever hope to. Clayton Harris had taken the ambitious youngster, then just 13, under his wing and on tour with his Top Fuel team for three seasons in the early 1970s – during the heyday of the national-record-setting Jack McKay New Dimension car -- and showed him the ropes and a taste of winning, just as Steve Carbone had done with Jeb Allen before he started driving.

He quickly became accepted by the nitro fraternity as a kid brother. California racers like Allen, Gary Ritter, Don Durbin, and Frank Bradley all stayed at the Hilton family home in Cincinnati during their Midwest match race forays.

The first race car that Hilton ever drove down the quarter-mile was his dad’s Top Fueler, which by then was sporting a Rodeck powerplant. He was 16 and didn’t yet even have his street driver’s license, but they got officials to look the other way at a late 1973 IHRA race in Miami so that he could get his competition license.

“They were clutch cars back then; you had to clean the engine out, bring the motor up and drag it into the beams, then sidestep the clutch and go,” he said. “I fell into it pretty good; it took me several runs to get it down the track, but we went pretty quick.

“I’d read about guys like Jeb Allen and John Stewart, but they were all West Coast guys, and Billy Meyer was from Texas. I was pretty much the only teenager driving a fuel car from around here. We were doing real well locally because a lot of the tracks wanted to book us because of my age.”

And yet, even while he was learning the racing ropes, his other education – the one most kids are focused on – never got neglected, thanks to his parents, who insisted that he graduate from high school, which meant long Sunday-night drives back to Cincinnati regardless of where the weekend’s racing had been.

“Getting me to school was my mom’s mission in life,” he recalled with a laugh. “Graduating from high school was her goal, race cars be damned. She’d deliver me – I was going to a vocational school – and I’d hang out as long as I could, then go right back to racing. I used to hate Sunday nights because everyone else was heading to the next drag race, and I had to go home.”

Young Bobby Hilton, sporting dual casts, made the local paper after his crash.

And while all of his high school peers were strutting their stuff on the streets with big-block Chevelles or what have you, thinking they were badasses, Hilton never let on about his ride. “I just giggled to myself whenever they started bragging about their cars,” he recalled. “I wasn’t into hot rods like the other kids; I was into race cars!”

The good times ended abruptly in August 1974, at Rockingham Dragway in North Carolina. A valve hung open in the engine, which grenaded the blower and cut a rear tire at more than 230 mph. The cost was devastating to the team: one destroyed race car and, in those days before arm restraints, two broken arms for young Bobby.

“It was really my dad’s worst nightmare,” he remembers. “Billy Stebbins had built us a great race car, and the cage held up great – it was all that was really left of the car -- but my arms got outside of the cockpit and got beat up pretty bad.”

Hilton spent weeks in the hospital in Rockingham undergoing multiple operations and nine months in matching casts, the healing slowed because, unfazed by it all, he couldn’t wait to get back to racing, helping put together a replacement car from Don Long. “I really put my parents through hell,” he said.

But even before they could get the new car on the track, Alan Starr, owner of the popular North Carolina-based Starrliner Top Fueler, at the suggestion of Harris, called John and Peggy Hilton to ask if their son could drive his race car. By the time that Hilton was ready for action, it was already 1977, and he was no longer a teenager, but his best years still lay ahead.

“We were kids, and we were racing every weekend,” he marveled. “It’s nothing like it is today. It was a duallie, one spare motor, and a CB radio. You made your phone calls at the end of the day from a phone booth.

{GALLERY_hilton}

“Alan Starr was just the greatest guy,” he recalls fondly. “Just a good ol’ Southern Top Fuel racer; ‘Drive it like you stole it; don’t worry about it, man.’ It was really cool. We’d run match races at tracks that I couldn’t pronounce and had no idea where they were, just alongside a mountain somewhere. The first time I drove his car was at a match race against Clayton Harris, in the dark, in Gulfport, Miss. ‘Just go out there and drive it, man,’ he told me. I learned a lot pretty quick.”

Even John Force will tell you that learning how to drive on crappy racetracks teaches you more than any other experience, and he also had time to get behind the wheel of other cars, including the Golddigger of Bill Thornberry and Tom Seigle, the Hot Tuna of Tommy Olds, and even his dad’s car in 1978.

And it was in his dad’s car, during a great month at the Winter Series events in Florida in late 1978 where they set low e.t. at every event, that his life would change, because it’s there that his skills got the attention of veteran Top Fuel owners Jim and Alison Lee.

“By that time, I had learned a lot about fuel systems and how to make the cars run, and we just hauled ass with this car that didn’t even have any lettering on it. Along the way, I ended up beating Jim and Alison’s car two or three times.”

It just so happened that the Lees’ driver, Dale Thierer, was getting married and looking to park his career for a time, so they offered the saddle to Hilton.

Hilton, right, with Jim and Alison Lee
Their unique wedge-shaped dragster carried them to a number of victories, including a pair of IHRA national event wins.
Hilton married the Lees' daughter, Diane, in September 1982.
(Above) Hilton drove the Custom Body Enterprises Dodge Omni Funny Car in the 1981 and 1982 seasons and later drove Ronnie Capps' Top Fueler (below) in Australia, his final ride in a fuel car.

“It was definitely a fork in the road for me, and I know I took the right one,” said Hilton, who moved into a room on the Lees’ farm in The Plains, Va., and fell in love with – and, a few years later, married -- the Lees’ daughter, Diane. (Yes, that’s right; he married the proverbial farmer’s daughter.)

The Lees, who had always had their cars built by Stebbins or Long, instead commissioned Lestor Guillory to build them a trick car, complete with side pods and outward and upward tilted body panels that made it wedge-like in design.

“That car was eons ahead of its time,” he said. “I’m not sure why they did that because they usually were pretty conservative with their race cars. It ran well, but it was too heavy, and the side pods had to come off between every run so we could work on the car, so eventually we took them off."

The team had a great two-year run, winning the 1979 NHRA Division 2 Top Fuel crown and divisional events in Gainesville and Reading, scoring breakthrough victories at the 1979 IHRA Pro Am Nationals and 1980 Winston Spring Finals, and runner-upping at the 1979 Dixie Nationals.

“It’s funny because Jim and Alison liked to drive home from the races Sunday night, and I was already used to that kind of schedule,” he said. “Jim had to be home to mow the grass and feed the cows, so Alison and I would work on the car together."

Much to his disappointment, the Lees let Hilton go during the winter prior to the 1981 season. ‘’I felt like we were right on the verge of winning an NHRA national event, but they told me they wanted to go in a different direction with a new driver,” he recalled. They replaced him with Butch Osmon, who carried them to their first (and only) NHRA national event final later that year at the Springnationals.

“Things were changing quickly on the technology side – high-volume fuel systems and Crowerglide clutches and all that -- and Jim just wasn’t grasping it. I was hanging out with the Funny Car guys like Ronnie Swearingen and Billy Meyer, and they were teaching me about how to run the cars. [Jim] Duffy from Billy’s team came over and put one of those high-volume systems on our car, and it really hauled the freight, but Jimmy took it back off after a few runs. Jim was still stuck on the old rev ‘em up as high as you can and let off the clutch. He wanted it lean and mean.”

And certainly, Hilton owns his part in the rift.

“I was still just a wild-ass kid, and Jimmy was a very conservative guy: ‘That jack stand goes in that spot; that’s where it’s been going for 10 years, and that’s where I want it.’ And I was all about change and having a good time and partying a little bit. I don’t think that he liked that,” he said. “If I have any regret about those days, it’s that I wish I would have been a little more mature. I passed up a lot of opportunities because I was hardheaded. Anyway, they left for Gainesville [in 1981], and I came over with my ’66 Olds convertible and a U-Haul trailer and dragged my stuff – and Diane – back to Cincinnati. Jim didn’t talk to me for two years.”

Bobby and Diane married the following September and are still together and the parents of a new generation of racer in their son, Tyler, who’s competing on the nostalgia circuit. Any rift with Jim healed a long time ago, and Alison, as she always was, is the spark plug of the new operation. (More on that later.)

After losing his ride with the Lees, Hilton was convinced that he could make it on his own – “Because I was so damned smart and everyone else was so dumb,” he says, in self-mocking retrospect -- and teamed up later in 1981 to run the Hot Tuna Top Fueler, with help on the side from one of his young peers, Allen, whom he had met while still wrenching for Harris and grew closer to in the years when Allen raced on the IHRA circuit. The car ran well, but the cost of racing was escalating so quickly that they couldn’t keep up.

“Jeb was a great friend to me – he’d do anything for you, give you any part in his trailer -- and we did a lot together; he kept me racing,” said Hilton. “Gary Burgin had helped get me a job driving the Custom Body Funny Car for a year with Ronnie tuning it. It was one of the coolest things I ever did in my life, but, again, my head got in the way, and I left to go race with Jeb and [wife] Cindy. It was cool because they had a baby and baby carriages and cats in the truck, and we just got in the truck and went on tour. We had a big time. We dragged that whole truck and trailer all the way through Yellowstone Park on the way to Brainerd from Seattle. I can remember going to Epping with them and eating lobster and hanging out on the beach. Those are the kind of days we had. ”

Hilton’s last driving job came in a six-week tour of Australia wheeling a Top Fueler for Ronnie Capps in the winter of 1982, just months after he and Diane were married. He returned Stateside, worked on some cars at the Winternationals, then went home. He didn’t stay there long. Allen had stopping driving after the 1982 season, but the two pals got a job together building a Tempo-bodied Funny Car for Bill “Capt. Crazy” Dunlap and his driver, Gary Southern, for the 1984 season.

“It was the most insane thing I’ve ever been involved with,” he said, still a bit in awe. “He had like seven engines for that thing, race cars, tractor trailers, everything. Jeb and I just stood there looking at it all, going ‘Wow …’ We were used to having one motor and maybe a spare short block. He had a second car, and Jeb tried to talk Dunlap into letting me drive it – he offered instead to let me drive his drag boat, which I didn’t want any part of. We tried like hell to make it all work, but that deal didn’t last all that long, and one day, I just got on an airplane and went home. We were toast -- burned toast -- just worn out from years of racing, and being around the whole Dunlap deal really spelled out the future of racing: You had to have a pile of parts to do it anymore, and I didn’t have that.”

Although at age 27 he was done with driving high-horsepower cars, he wasn’t done with racing or horses. Surprisingly, he found himself charged with building a world-class steeplechase horse-racing track in The Plains for a friend of the Lees'. “I didn’t know anything about how to do it, but he told me we’d learn along the way,” he remembers, “and every bit of that drag racing experience and being around adults and growing up so fast all paid off.” The track, Great Meadow, is still in business, and Hilton is its superintendent.

The Lees flanked Tyler and Bobby Hilton as they entered the next part of their shared racing story, with Tyler, 25, driving the Great Expectations III nostalgia dragster.

Tyler, born in 1990, also developed a love for mechanical things, and his love of conventional hot rods convinced his dad to found a shop, Hilton’s Hot Rods, which has won numerous awards for its creations, including last year’s Goodguys Hot Rod of the Year award (Tony Lombardi’s supercharged '30 Model A Ford), and recently was featured in The Rodder’s Journal. They also have a good following on Instagram (@hiltonhotrods).

Tyler also decided he’d like to try drag racing and attended Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School last November – Hilton had match raced a lot against Hawley and the Chi-Town Hustler while driving the Custom Body car – and earned his Advanced E.T. license. Hilton had J. Ed Horton build them a front-engine dragster to run in NDRL’s 7.0 Pro class. Grandma Alison is heavily involved in the car, which carries the paint scheme made famous on the Lees’ Great Expectations dragsters and carries the name Great Expectations III.

Like his dad's, Tyler’s first car was powered by a nitro-burning Chevy engine, and, like his dad, he was a fast learner. “He was a natural,” said the proud father. “His first full pass was a 6.85. I can just look at him and know he knows how to drive a race car. I want to get him some seat time in a blown nitro car before we look at moving up to Top Fuel and running the [NHRA Hot Rod] Heritage [Racing] Series. We’ll be making some runs next week at Epping [at the New England Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA Insurance] to finish his license.

“I’m just so happy to still be involved in the sport – I never thought I would be – and to do it with Alison and my son. It’s very cool. Diane said the other day, ‘We lived our whole lives before we were 20 years old; we grew up too quick,’ so it’s good to do this again. They say it all comes full circle. My dad was watching me and worrying about me driving his car, and surely, seeing Tyler drive worries me to death sometimes, but it’s working out real well. It’s going to be awesome the next couple of years.”

Next week: John Stewart