Hamilton, 49, dies after battle with neck cancer By Ryan Smithson, NASCAR.COMJanuary 7, 200710:11 PM EST (03:11 GMT)

Bobby Hamilton, the 2004 Craftsman Truck Series champion and a four-time winner in the Cup Series, died Sunday. He was 49.

Hamilton, a native of Nashville, Tenn., had been battling cancer for nearly a year. He announced in March 2006 that he was undergoing treatment for neck cancer. He immediately turned over his driving duties in the Craftsman Truck Series to his son, Bobby Hamilton Jr.

Liz Allison, a family friend who co-hosted a radio show with Hamilton, said he was at home with his family in Mount Juliet, Tenn., when he died.

Jim Hunter, NASCAR’s vice president for communications, saw first-hand the unlikely procession of Hamilton’s career from Nashville short track champion to multiple winner in NASCAR’s top series.

“He meant an awful lot. He was old school and one of those guys that did it his way,” Hunter said. “He was very popular in the garage area and in the industry because he worked real hard. He didn’t believe anyone was owed anything.”

Hunter said the news hit the sanctioning body especially hard.

“It came as a real shock. We knew [the cancer] was serious, and we knew he was fighting it, but you just never know these things,” Hunter said. “He will be missed. He was a tough, tough guy.”
Truck Series driver Brendan Gaughan recalled a day last fall when Hamilton took him aside and asked him to drive for his team.

“It floored me,” said Gaughan, who eventually decided to turn down the offer. “He asked me to drive for his team, and it was quite an honor. That day will always sit in my head.

“He was a great driver and a great owner. My heart goes out to the BHR organization.”

Hamilton was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in February after a malignant growth was found when swelling from dental surgery did not go down.

He raced in the season’s first three events, with a best finish of 14th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, before turning over the wheel to his son.

“I love what I do; I love this business,” Hamilton said when he disclosed that he had cancer. “NASCAR has been good to me, and I just don’t feel comfortable when I am not around it.”

Hamilton quit driving in the Cup Series after the 2002 season to focus on his thriving Craftsman Truck Series team. He went on to win the Truck Series title in ‘04.

“It is a terrible loss to us,” said Larry McClure, Hamilton’s team owner from 1998-2000. “I will miss him. I always thought of him as my friend.”

McClure said he had talked to Hamilton just a few weeks ago.

“I asked him how he was dong and he said, ‘Pretty good,’ ” McClure said. “Just amazing how it can turn like that.”

Jeff Purvis, a fellow Tennessean and a close friend of Hamilton’s, was shocked at the news of Hamilton’s death. A longtime Busch Series regular whose career was curtailed by a 2002 crash, Purvis visited with Ken Schrader on Friday and they had discussed Hamilton’s progress.

“We went to lunch and talked about Bobby,” Purvis said. “[Schrader] had just left Bobby’s shop and came from there to my house.

“[Hamilton] was kind of what racing was supposed to be about. He was a racer’s racer. You could talk to him about chassis. He understood racing and the racecars, the event. He really understood racing itself.”

Though he made his Cup debut in 1989 — a one-race deal at Phoenix on Nov. 5 — Hamilton probably is best known for the unusual way he broke into NASCAR’s top series. He served as a stunt driver for the 1990 movie Days of Thunder, performing so well that he was soon hired to run the Cup Series full-time. He went on become rookie of the year in 1991.

His big break, however, came in 1995 when Hamilton was hired to drive the No. 43 of Petty Enterprises. He resurrected the ailing team with 10 top-10 finishes in 1995, and in ‘96, he won at Phoenix, which helped him finish a career-best ninth in points.

After winning at Rockingham in 1997, Hamilton moved to Morgan-McClure Motorsports for the 1998-2000 seasons. His only win during that time came in ‘98 at Martinsville.

“He was a good driver and a good businessman,” McClure said. “We spent three years with him and it was great. He got us our last win. It was probably the last time the team was competitive, and he kept getting better and better.”

Hamilton wrapped up his Cup career with a two-year stint driving for Andy Petree. Hamilton won at Talladega in 2001 — a thrilling race that went green the entire way — for Petree’s first victory as a car owner, and Petree celebrated by diving across the hood as Hamilton drove into Victory Lane.

“He definitely raced hard,” Gaughan said of Hamilton. “I remember that race when he won at Talladega when everyone was falling out of the seat [from the oppressive heat]. That was a testament to how tough he was.”

Allison, the widow of former NASCAR star Davey Allison, said, “The thing I loved about Bobby Sr. so much is that he treated everybody the same. It didn’t matter if you were one of the drivers he competed against or a fan he’d never laid eyes on before.

“He didn’t have a pretentious bone in his body. I think that’s why people were drawn to him. He was just very real and had a way of relating to everyone.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.