ATLANTA -- No one in stock car racing has had a stranger career than Bobby Hillin. The latest twist -- the addition of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire as a business partner -- should make for another interesting chapter.
The son of a prominent Indy-car and sprint-car owner, Hillin began racing at age 13 year his hometown of Midland, Texas. He won a late-model stock track championship at 17. He attended Buck Baker's driving school while still a teen-ager and so dazzled car owner Harry Hyde that Hyde immediately took him to Winston Cup.
Hillin became the youngest driver to qualify a car at more than 200 mph, and shortly thereafter, became the youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a super speedway race. He was 22 when he won the DieHard 500 at Talladega on July 28, 1986, beating the late Tim Richmond by half a car length.
The media proclaimed him the sport's next star, and when he won his first Busch Series race in only his seventh start not long after Talladega, he seemed to justify those high expectations.
But a dozen years later, Hillin counts but one Winston Cup victory in 333 starts. He ran out of opportunities in Winston Cup last year, and he is trying to make a comeback on the Busch Series.
"The only thing I can say is, today, I still believe I've got the talent to win -- and win in Winston Cup," Hillin said this week. "A big reason why I started this Busch team was for me to get a little more control of what was going on around me with the car and the race team."
Hillin drove for the Stavola Brothers from 1983 to 1990, finishing in the top five four times. From 1991 through 1997, he drove for 12 different car owners.
Success since the Talladega win has been rare. Hillin finished third at Talladega in 1992 as a relief driver for Davey Allison, and he qualified on the outside pole at Talladega last year. His best finish in the points during the '90s was 19th in 1990.
"I made some mistakes," Hillin said. "Probably the Stavola Brothers and myself should have gone our separate ways in about 1987. I might have taken a whole different path. But when you end up staying in a situation that stagnates, you go downhill, and it's hard to get your confidence up after that.
"If you look at what I've done since then, I've never been with a team or had the opportunity to be a great race car driver. So it's kind of a tough situation, and I've really agonized over it at different times in my career. What's my destiny in this whole thing? I've done a lot of soul searching, and I feel like this year, for the first time in several years, I'm doing something about the fact that I've been just a mediocre, hanging-on driver for the past 10 Years."
Hillin formed his Busch team with four baseball players as partners: Danny Shaeffer, Pete Schourek, Gary Gaetti and Hal Morris. McGwire came aboard last week, and North Carolina congressional candidate Robin Hayes also is involved.
Each of the baseball players has made an initial investment of $50,000, but their value may prove to be considerably greater to Hillin. The fact that Hillin is keeping track of McGwire's home runs with a "Big Mac" logo on the back of the race car has generated a lot of media interest. With media interest comes sponsor interest. The team is still looking for a major sponsor and won't run many races until one is found.
"Between the six of them, we probably talk to at least one of them every day," Hillin said of his partners. "They're really involved in it. They just love the sport, love the competition. All those guys were Winston Cup fans before we started this deal. Now that we've got this Busch team, they've started following the Busch Series much closer. They've come to me and said, `man, this Busch Series is a lot of fun and it's competitive.' It's been neat to have them as partners."
And maybe the partnership will help Hillin avoid finishing his career as the brightest star that fizzled.