Drivers remember Hamilton as tough competitor

Updated: January 9, 2007, 11:59 AM ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Bobby Hamilton parked the car after practice in 2001, headed to the truck and started changing clothes. His crew chief followed him, wanting to know if he needed to change anything before the Talladega 500.

"He said no and asked me if the race motor was a little better," Jimmy Elledge recalled Monday. "I told him it had a couple more horsepower and he said we'd be fine. You had to pry it out of him, but he knew we were going to be good and we won the race the next day."

Fellow NASCAR drivers and friends remembered Hamilton on Monday as a fierce but gracious competitor following his death Sunday from cancer at the age of 49. His family planned visitation Tuesday at Hermitage Funeral Home with a private funeral Wednesday.

He was survived by his wife, Lori; son, Bobby Jr.; and a granddaughter. They thanked fans and colleagues for their support and concern.

"One of Bobby's greatest loves in life was racing, and we will continue on in his honor," said a statement posted on the Bobby Hamilton Racing Web site.

Born in Nashville in 1957, Hamilton drove in all of NASCAR's top three divisions, making 371 Cup starts and winning four races in what is now the Nextel Cup series and also the 2004 Craftsman Truck Series in his own truck.

"Bobby really meant a lot to me," Elledge said. "He's the guy I won my first race with and so far it's still my only win. Bobby taught me a lot about a lot of things."

Two of Hamilton's Cup victories came driving the No. 43 car for Petty Enterprises at Phoenix in 1996 and Rockingham in 1997, and Richard Petty said Hamilton always would be a part of his family.

"You could always count on Bobby," Petty said. "He was just that type of guy. He never let you down and gave you everything he had on-and-off the track. His family is in our hearts and prayers."

Testing began Monday in Daytona for the Daytona 500 in February, and the news of Hamilton's death made for a tough start. Michael Waltrip called Hamilton his buddy.

"He was one of those guys; there was no baloney. You knew exactly what he was thinking about everything," Waltrip said.

Hamilton did just that in 2001 when talking about Kevin Harvick: "Just because you are in Dale Earnhardt's car doesn't make you Dale Earnhardt," Hamilton said after a run-in at Martinsville in 2001.

Harvick said Monday he had become friends with Hamilton since then and their wives also had become close over the past year.

"It's just hard to understand why certain things happen to certain people. But, he was a pretty good person and liked to race and liked to be a part of this sport," Harvick said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among those shocked by the news.

"Bobby helped me quite a bit," he said. "When I was racing in late models, we'd take trips to Nashville probably 10 times a year, and Bobby was a big, big, help with us there. So I had a pretty good friendship with him from an early part of my career. It's tough."

Hamilton was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in February and made his diagnosis public in March. He ran only three races last year before handing over his truck to his son.

A teammate of Hamilton's at Andy Petree Racing in 2000 and 2001, Joe Nemechek said it felt like he had just pushed Hamilton to victory at Talladega.

"It hits close to home when something like this happens," Nemechek said. "It's like when I lost my brother. Anytime you're close to someone and you know them well it just makes your heart hurt."

Veteran driver Mark Martin called Hamilton one of the most down-to-earth people he had ever been around.

"It's just a huge loss for everyone in the racing family, and our thoughts are prayers are with his family at this time," Martin said.

Sterling Marlin started racing about the same time as Hamilton, and the fellow Tennessee native often flew with Hamilton to races.

"Bobby was a great guy and a good friend," Marlin said. "This sport is really going to miss him. He was a hard, clean racer and a really talented driver," Marlin said.

"Everyone in the racing world will miss him."

ALSO SEE