NASCAR Driver Bobby Hamilton dies of cancer at 49

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Bobby Hamilton dies of cancer at 49Updated 1/7/2007 9:05 PM ET
By Larry Woody, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE — Racer Bobby Hamilton, who rose from humble surroundings to become a NASCAR celebrity but never forgot his Nashville roots, died Sunday after a yearlong battle with cancer.
He was 49.
Bobby Hamilton Jr. said his father died at about 3 p.m. at home. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
"I always had a lot of respect and admiration for Bobby," said three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, who, like Hamilton, honed his skills at Fairgrounds Speedway and years later assisted Hamilton with his racing career.
"He worked hard, took what he had and maximized it. One thing that always impressed me about Bobby was that he never forgot where he came from. After he made it in NASCAR he didn't move off to Charlotte or somewhere. He stayed here, built his truck team, and hired a lot of local people. He gave a lot back to his sport and his community."
"Bobby was very tough and strong-willed and I thought the world of him," said Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 champion who also raced with Hamilton over the years. "He was a great racer and a great guy. He'd give you the shirt off his back. He was a good friend."
Hamilton, a non-smoker, was diagnosed with head and neck cancer about this time last year. He went public with his battle with cancer at a news conference in March at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Don't call me a 'victim,' " he said at the time. "I don't look at it that way."
Hamilton underwent intense radiation and chemotherapy treatments that rendered him unable to race. His son took over the driving duties in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, in which Hamilton was the 2004 champion.
In August, Hamilton said the cancer was in remission and he set a goal to race again by the fall. But the cancer returned, and further treatments proved futile.
"My dad wanted things to continue as normal as possible during his ordeal," said Bobby Jr. "He didn't want anybody to worry about him or feel sorry for him. He honestly seemed more concerned about the rest of us than he did about himself."
Hamilton was a third-generation Nashville racer. His grandfather Charles "Preacher" Hamilton was one of the sport's pioneers.
Bobby Hamilton quit school in his early teens, left home, and in his words, "lived on the street" before taking a job driving wreckers for an East Nashville company.
In 1989 Hamilton got his big career break when Waltrip — by then a top NASCAR racer — recommended him to drive a "movie car" in a race at Phoenix International Raceway. While his role was simply to provide live-action footage for the Tom Cruise film Days of Thunder, Hamilton drove so impressively that he was offered a full-time ride.
"I wasn't surprised that, once he got his opportunity, he capitalized on it," Waltrip said. "He was always extremely focused and determined."
Over the next 13 years, Hamilton won more than $13 million in prize money. One of the teams he drove for was Petty Enterprises, and in 1996, he gave legendary driver Richard Petty his first victory as a team owner.
Hamilton assisted several young racers with their careers, including Chase Montgomery, Joe Henderson III and Deborah Renshaw, and supported numerous charitable causes. He especially supported educational causes, he said, because of regret over his own lack of formal education.
"My dad was a good person," said Bobby Jr. "The people who didn't know him are the ones who missed out."
Hamilton raced in last season's first three truck events, with a best finish of 14th at Atlanta.
Hamilton drove in all of NASCAR's top three divisions, making 371 starts and winning four times in what is now the Nextel Cup series. He won 10 truck races and one Busch Series race.
Hamilton's Nextel Cup wins came at Talladega, Ala., Phoenix, Rockingham, N.C., and Martinsville, Va. His best season was in 1996 when he finished ninth in the points standings. He won his first Cup race that year, at Phoenix.
Hamilton became a full-time driver-owner in the truck series in 2003.