BUSCH: Bobby Hamilton 2002 season preview

Bobby Hamilton, Driver If you ask Bobby Hamilton what his favorite experience was in the No. 55 Chevrolet last year, he grins with no hesitation and says, "Talladega (Ala.), why even ask?" On that bright sunny day in April, the excitement was ...

Bobby Hamilton, Driver

If you ask Bobby Hamilton what his favorite experience was in the No. 55 Chevrolet last year, he grins with no hesitation and says, "Talladega (Ala.), why even ask?" On that bright sunny day in April, the excitement was obvious. Car owner Andy Petree lost control jumping on the hood of the racecar as Hamilton drove down pit road to victory lane. As the exhausted 44-year-old sat on the checkerboard ground, taking oxygen after driving the entire race caution-free, he let out a big sigh of relief. He had finally found the winning combination he was looking for in a race team.

Talladega's victory came as a surprise to Hamilton's critics this season. The once-labeled flat track racer shocked everyone by coming from the back of the pack to grab the lead from Tony Stewart with only one lap to go. Hamilton claimed the victory in a former showcar for the Andy Petree Racing (APR) team. But Hamilton's success started in the beginning of the season. In only his first race in the No. 55 Chevy Hamilton finished eighth. By May, he had already placed six top-10 finishes under his belt, two of them being top-fives. At both Martinsville, Va. events, Hamilton had stellar performances, coming up just shy of a victory in the last few laps.

In 2001 Hamilton finished in the NASCAR Winston Cup points championship in 18th place, higher than any other driver had done for sponsor Square D or the No. 55 Chevy. Despite the record-breaking season for the No. 55 team, the Nashville, Tenn., native is still the same down-to-earth character he's always been.

"It matters to me that we had a great season last year, but then again it really doesn't," Hamilton said. "Either way I am going to say I want more wins, more top-10s or top-fives. The hype does nothing for me because I am the same guy I've always been. I don't care if I am racing on Saturday night like the old times, or if I am doing it on Sundays like I am now. As long as I'm racing, that's all that matters."

In 2002 Hamilton's No. 55 Chevy will sport a new paint scheme in white, black and green. Schneider Electric, the parent company of previous sponsor Square D, will have the primary spots on the car. Although Hamilton has a new look, his outlook for 2002 is the same.

"One year I wore pink when I was sponsored by Country Time Lemonade," Hamilton said. "I don't really want to do that again, but I will if needed. Schneider Electric is a great group of sponsors that follow us at APR and we are fortunate for that. If the support is there, it makes a world of difference in performance and the whole program."

One of the biggest reasons Andy Petree signed Hamilton to drive in 2001 was his impressive resume. Since Hamilton earned rookie-of-the-year title in 1991, he has placed five poles under his belt. Not to mention the career 20 top-five finishes and the 64 top-10 finishes Hamilton has knotched.

But the best part about Bobby Hamilton is that he can both win races and work on race cars. On top of his fourth win at Talladega, Hamilton owns three more Winston Cup victories at distinctly different tracks: Phoenix (Oct. 27, 1996), Rockingham, N.C. (Oct. 27, 1997) and Martinsville, Va. (April 20, 1998). It was no surprise in the garage area to find Hamilton working under the hood of his No. 55 Chevy on a race weekend. After all, Hamilton got his start in racing by building race cars for other people to drive -- until he realized he could probably do it better himself.

"My family has been in the Nashville racing scene throughout my entire life," Hamilton said. "They built local track race cars. They built a race car for Bob Ruth, who holds one of the original records at Daytona when it was run on sand. We also built country music singer Marty Robbins' machines before he moved to Winston Cup. But once people started getting rough with my equipment I said, 'If that's all they're going to do, I can tear them up myself.' Then I started driving.

"My big break was before the Super Star Showdown," Hamilton continued. "Darrell Waltrip had to qualify for a Busch Grand National Series race at Nashville and on the same day he had to run the Winston race in Charlotte, N.C. He asked me to qualify and practice his race car that day. In qualifying, my lap was eighth-fastest. Darrell came to Nashville and ran the race in the car that I had shaken down for him. He won and thanked me in victory lane. After that, he recognized my talent behind the wheel.

"Darrell went on to recommend me to drive in the 'Days of Thunder' movie-syndicated race at Phoenix International Raceway in 1989. I qualified fifth in a Hendrick race car, led some laps and was running in the top 10 when NASCAR asked me to pull out of the race. They were afraid that I might hurt a regular in the final point standings. I came out of that event with a whole new career ahead of me."

Not only is Hamilton a proven NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver, he is also the owner of three NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series teams at Bobby Hamilton Racing (BHR). An operation that once started from Hamilton's home has now grown to a three-team operation with Dodge-sponsored trucks.

"This business has really taken off for BHR," Hamilton said. "When we started this whole operation it was to help build a future for my family. There will come a time when I can't race competitively anymore. Although I don't think that time is coming soon, I want to prepare for when it does.

"I used to test with the truck teams and have more time for things like going to the wind tunnel. Now I don't have time to dabble in the day-to-day operations with the trucks. I'm too busy with meetings and office work; I have to keep that shop open even when I'm gone all the time. So I've hired people that I trust and that I know want the best for my operation. That makes it easier to leave. It's hard to keep up with the racing schedule for the Winston Cup Series and own teams at the same time, but I wouldn't have it any other way."

Being an owner of the multi-car operation gives Hamilton some extra understanding and respect for car owner Andy Petree. Hamilton said, "I'm very impressed with the way that Andy runs his operation. He's aggressive, and I like that. Last year I spent a lot of time at the shop watching what the team was doing. They build everything in-house and pretty much from scratch. There are several key people there that really know the ins and outs of this sport. Like me, Andy puts a lot of trust in his employees to do their jobs, but on the other hand we both demand results."

Despite his busy schedule, Hamilton frequently made trips to APR. The visits not only built morale in the crew members that worked in the shop, but also helped Hamilton check on things with the No. 55 Chevy. "When I would go to the APR shop, I would make sure that I walked around and talked with everyone in the different departments," Hamilton said. "It makes a difference to get to know the people on a one-on-one basis. And in this sport there is not a lot of time for chit-chat, but by staying on top of the game you're that much more prepared for things that catch you off guard. It also gave Andy and me time to throw ideas back and forth to help each other out. I tell him my ideas about different policies or things with the race car and he does the same in return." Laughing, Hamilton adds, "Now whether we followed them was a different matter."

No matter how big Hamilton's career has bloomed over the past several years, he has remained the same -- a low-profile kind of guy. He doesn't watch football or any other kind of sport unless it involves a racecar. But what does a multi-team truck owner and Winston Cup driver do in his spare time? For Hamilton, there is not a lot of extra time. When there is, he relaxes by watching movies, singing along with many of his favorite country tunes or making time to spend with his family. Fortunately for Hamilton, his 24-year-old son, Bobby Hamilton, Jr., races in the NASCAR BUSCH Series. The father and son often travel together in the elder's airplane to the companion events between series.

"We get so much accomplished in the airplane," Hamilton said. "That is usually a time that we talk business or catch up on things in our teams. Sometimes Jr. will ask me questions about a setup or something he is wanting to try, but for the most part I support him and let him learn things for himself. It's important for him to build his own career and path in racing, not what I would want for him. Of course, I will help him out any time he asks, but for the most part he's a smart driver. He's got a lot to learn, but that will come on it's own. He won't be so daring if he gets hit hard one good time. It's fun to see him learn and go through things that I remember going through on the track.

"We got to be teammates last year when Joe (Nemechek, APR teammate) got hurt and had to sit out a few races. One of those weekends he out-qualified me and gave me a hard time about it. I reminded him of that as I drove past him in the first few laps of the race. I'm proud of what he's accomplished on the track. Maybe one day I can field a car for him, but for now I'll race my car and he can race his."

No matter who is racing, you can bet that if Bobby Hamilton is not behind the wheel, he'll be watching it from somewhere.

-bhr/ls-

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Series NASCAR-CUP , NASCAR-NS , NASCAR-TRUCK