In the countdown to Daytona, there are just 80 more days until the green flag waves. While there have been many drivers in the No. 80 car, including Dave Blaney, Joe Ruttman, Mike Bliss, Randy LaJoie, Carl Long, Ted Christopher, Mario Gosselin, Andy Hillenburg and Aric Almirola, the driver with the most time behind the wheel of that car number was without a doubt Jimmy Horton.
[media-credit name=”Photo Credit: Curtis Palmer/Wikipedia” align=”alignright” width=”266″][/media-credit]Horton, a driver born and bred in New Jersey, raced in 48 NASCAR Cup races in eight seasons. He was behind the wheel of the No. 80 for 22 races, ranging from 1984 to 1994.
“It was a good deal,” Horton said of his ride in the No. 80 car. “We started out in the No. 85 and then turned it over to the No. 80 because we couldn’t have No. 85 when we ran Cup.”
“We started out running Cup with it but backed off a little bit to learn a little more,” Horton continued. “Then we went ARCA racing and we did real well. We won a total of eight ARCA races, five in a row.”
As with many race car drivers, Horton started racing on dirt tracks close to home. He first started racing in 1974 in Middletown, New Jersey on Saturday nights and at Nazareth, Pennsylvania on Sundays, winning track championships at both tracks.
Horton’s first asphalt race was at Daytona, which was also his first time ever in the draft.
“I ran a Busch car in 1985 at Daytona,” Horton said. “We qualified 19th and ended up breaking a motor early. But that was my first real asphalt race that I ran and my first time in the draft.”
“Bobby Allison helped us,” Horton continued. “At the time there were short fields in the Cup cars. Our first car was a Ford Thunderbird.”
Horton also ran Dover and Pocono in the Cup series and then went ARCA racing. His first race in ARCA was again at Daytona, where he took the checkered flag.
Yet in spite of his ARCA success, Horton was unable to return to the Cup Series on a full-time basis. As he described it, he was caught in the ‘middle generation’ of NASCAR drivers.
“I had my foot in the door with the Cup deal and it was going to take off,” Horton said. “But when I was trying to get in, all the owners wanted older, experienced drivers.”
“I was 33 years old when Jeff Gordon comes in at 20 years old,” Horton continued. “And everyone jumped over that whole one crop.”
“I wasn’t alone but they jumped over that whole group and went to the younger drivers,” Horton said. “That middle generation got skipped.”
In addition to running the No. 80 car, Horton is also known for two other reasons. First, many fans may recognize that he subbed for an injured Darrell Waltrip. The other reason for Horton’s notoriety is for two major crashes in which he was involved, one where he flew off the track at Talladega and the other a major wreck at Atlanta.
“I drove for Darrell (Waltrip) when he got hurt and I ran real good,” Horton said. “I ran three races and Greg Sacks drove the car until Darrell was able to get back in it.”
“I’ve had my share of crashes,” Horton said. “I was conscious for that whole time at Talladega when I crashed right off the race track.”
“I started to get out, but the State trooper put his hand on my helmet and told me I better sit there a minute,” Horton continued. “I told him I’d had about all I could stand and I was getting out.”
“Two years later, I wrecked at Atlanta and that one hurt me pretty good,” Horton aid. “I had a cracked skull, two broken shoulder blades, and a broken wrist. That one hurt me.”
“But we mended good and went racing again.”
At age 55 years, Horton is still honing his craft. For the 2011 season he ran close to 60 races, at his regular dirt track on Saturday nights and some select special races, winning one race and finishing fifth in points.
“I’ve always said when I don’t win a race in a year, I’ll retire,” Horton said. “I’ve been lucky the past two years that I’ve won a race a year, so I’ll keep going.”
“Next year, we’re just going to run selected races and I’m looking for a ride to run a full schedule,” Horton continued. “Right now I work building racing radiators and all parts for the race cars.”
But for Horton, sitting behind the wheel of the No. 80 car was one of the most special times in his life.
“The 80 car was a real good deal,” Horton said. “The 80 number has been good to me.”