It’s a good thing that Roy Hill was sitting down when he took a call from “Big Daddy” Don Garlits a few weeks ago. If he hadn’t been, he might have been hurt when his legs turned to Jell-O.
Garlits called the lifelong racer under the guise of checking on some phone numbers, and later informed him he wouldn’t be attending the U.S. Nationals due to health issues.
“I said, ‘I guess I’ll see you down the road sometime. If not, I’ll see you in March at Gainesville’ or something like that,” Hill said. “He hesitated, and I said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you, Don?’ He said, ‘Yes, there is. I want you to make sure you’re at the banquet in March because you’re being inducted into the Hall of Fame.’ “
The news that he had been elected for induction in Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in Ocala, Florida, was the most surprising thing Hill said he’d ever heard. “It brought tears to my eyes,” Hill said, his voice quivering. “It left me speechless -- and that never happens.”
Hill, who will be 75 in late October, will be enshrined along with Funny Car driver and Texas Motorplex owner Billy Meyer, crew chief Lee Beard, team owner and driver Larry Minor, and
A/Fuel dragster legend Don Enriquez.
It’s the culmination of Hill’s racing achievements, which go hand in hand with: a difficult youth, including the death of his father; a battle with a learning disability that caused him to drop out of school as a seventh grader; a stint in federal prison for “doing whatever it took” to continue drag racing; the establishment of a long-running drag racing school; co-ownership of Rockingham Dragway, and a return to racing as a driver and team owner.
“I’ve thought about what it would be like to be inducted, but I can tell you this, it was a surprise and it means an awful lot to me,” Hill said. “There’ve been an awful lot of people who have written about me and people that stuck by me like the Pettys (patriarch Lee, his sons Richard and Maurice and their children), and Ronnie Sox and Buddy Martin … and so many other great people are in that Hall of Fame.
“So many people have called and are so happy for me.”
Steve Earwood, who co-owned Rockingham with Hill from 1992-96, had this to say about Hill’s selection: “He has overcome so many obstacles as a child, a teenager and as an adult. He’s just very driven. He’s a bit of a perfectionist. When he ran liquor, he ran the best liquor he could get. When he runs his racecars, he runs the best equipment you can get your hands on, and he tries to hire the best people.”
Hill was 3 ½ years old when his father, Lee Roy, a World War II veteran, died two days after a highway accident. Young Hill struggled in school in certain subjects, so much so that other kids made fun of him as “dumb” and “stupid.”
“I know math, I know history, I just had a problem learning to read and spell,” he said.
So in the seventh grade, Hill dropped out of school because, “It wasn’t doing me any good. I wasn’t really learning anything and I was ready to go to work.”
At 14, he lied about his age to get a work permit and a driver’s license.
He eventually wound up getting into drag racing, and got a huge boost in knowledge and experience picking the brains of his Randolph County, North Carolina, neighbors Richard and Maurice Petty. At that time in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Richard was already a huge NASCAR star thanks to the horsepower created in the engine room by his brother, Maurice.
By 1974, Hill’s experience running a Southern Pro Stock circuit -- a series that was Earwood’s brainchild -- helped him make the leap to national-event competition. He was a finalist in the IHRA race at Commerce, Ga., that year, and the NHRA show at Columbus, Ohio. Hill would eventually notch 13 victories in IHRA Pro Stock competition, and he was leading the points in 1986 when he ran afoul of the federal government for his role in a drug ring.
Hill served three years, then returned to drag racing in a major way by teaching others his driving methods and mental approach to competition. Roy Hill’s Drag Racing School has been in business since 1989, and its launch was boosted by one of the most high-profile players in motorsports marketing, T. Wayne Robertson of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Robertson was the president of Sports Marketing Enterprises, a branch of RJR that funded and promoted NASCAR’s top series, NHRA and IHRA’s points funds, rodeo, hydroplane racing and more.
“I dreamed of the school when I was in ‘college,’ “ Hill said, referring to his prison term. “It was the only thing I could think of to do to get back into drag racing.
“Wayne did the brochure for the school. He bought ads for me in Car Craft and Super Stock magazines for three months. He gave me their ad agency to promote the school. He paid for six driving suits and six helmets and said, ‘Here, boy, go make it work.’ ”
A few years later, Earwood showed up in Rockingham to discuss the purchase of the dragway. Since he was in the area, he made the short drive to Hill’s shop to check in on one of his old Pro Stock circuit racers, and he informed Hill he was considering purchasing the track.
How that purchase came to fruition is an example of Hill’s powers of persuasion.
“Roy said, ‘Well, let’s buy it,’ “ said Earwood, who at the time was managing the Texas Motorplex. “I said, ‘Well, it’s not that easy. They want this much money and it just doesn’t seem feasible.’ So I get back to Texas, and he calls me up and says, ‘Hey, do you mind if I get involved in this thing here?’ I said, ‘No, go ahead, knock yourself out.’
“He’s so determined and tenacious that he was able to secure what I thought was the final financing. So I quit my job at the Motorplex, which was a pretty good job at the time, and moved to North Carolina.”
Then the banker who was to loan them the bulk of the funds backed out on the Friday before the scheduled Monday closing. Hill came to the rescue with a friend who worked at Southern National Bank in Archdale, North Carolina, and her position allowed her to loan anyone $10,000 without getting approval from a higher-up.
“She said, ‘You bring as many people in here as you can, and I can loan them each 10,000 bucks,’ “ Earwood said. “So we drug everybody we could find in racing to that bank. I’d fill out their application in the lobby, they’d go meet with her, she’d cut a check. Meet with her, cut a check. … That one afternoon we got enough people to march in there and get loans for $10,000 each. She was someone who believed in Roy and believed in my business plan, and 32 days later we had the Winston Invitational.”
Hill got back behind the wheel competitively in 2015 when Ford chose to compete in NHRA’s Factory Stock Showdown series. He’ll be back in his favored class in 2020 when he fields a Mountain Motor Pro Stock car for Mike Bell, a longtime employee who won the 1995 IHRA crown in that division while Hill finished third. In all, Hill and drivers Bell, Doug Kirk and Robert Patrick amassed 28 IHRA national event wins in his cars.
That’s quite the success story for a junior high dropout, whose initiation into credit came when he financed, and paid off, a TV and stereo. Then he would borrow a thousand dollars “whether I needed it or not” and pay it back to continue building good credit.
“And whenever I wanted to do this Pro Stock deal, I got a line of credit of a million dollars to get started,” he said.
“Once people found out that everything the government was saying about me wasn’t true, it opened up,” Hill added. “I came home, I went to work and started my school, and for 10 years I never took a day off, never took a drink … but I will drink a glass of wine or beer now.
“My life changed. I found the problem that I had, but I had time to sit down and evaluate myself, and the problem was Roy Hill. I didn’t like the Roy Hill I knew. I was my own worst enemy. (Prison) changed my whole life, OK? I can’t say I regret the time I had to spend away because it probably saved my life, and it made me a better person.”
And that helped put him in position to be enshrined alongside the other greats in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
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