One of the most colorful drivers to ever compete in the Modifieds, Elton “Wild Man” Hildreth (October 5, 1917 – September 2, 2013) is best known for his exploits in his orange and black No. 16-J, a 1937 Chevrolet coupe that was powered by a small-block Chevy engine.
A resident of Bridgeton, New Jersey, Hildreth actually began his racing career in open-cockpit cars back in 1932 and the story of how he got involved with his first race is as fascinating as any that has ever been told.
While just a lad of almost 15, Hildreth was quite mechanically inclined and he was invited to help a Big Car (Sprint Car) team from the Midwest that was using his father Japhett’s garage as a base while they were in town to compete in the races that were being held at the old half-mile dirt Garden State Fairgrounds. Initially, his job was to handle the car’s set-up and make any engine adjustments that were needed, but all of that changed when the driver got a telegram to return home due to a family emergency and Hildreth was offered the ride.
The fact that this would be the first time that Hildreth ever drove a racing car did not seem to bother any of those involved, so he made some impressive practice laps before he went out and set a new track record in time trials and then won the race. And that initial success led to Hildreth becoming a rather successful Big Car driver in the 1930s before he stopped racing to begin his business life and start a family.
Although Hildreth stepped away from racing, he still had an interest in motorsports and the desire to race once again became real for the alignment shop/garage owner and Nash dealer with his Hildreth Motors when NASCAR introduced its new late-model racing series.
From 1950 through 1954, Hildreth ran a virtually-stock No. 1 Nash in most of NASCAR’s early Grand National (Cup Series) events. With this underpowered car he competed on half-mile dirt tracks, the famed old Daytona Beach-Road Course (where he once led the race with two laps to go before running out of gas on the last lap) and on the legendary Darlington International Raceway. In all, he had seven Top-10s in 51 starts with his best finish of fourth in a 200-lapper on the old half-mile Bloomsburg (Pa.) Fairgrounds in 1953.
Hildreth also devised a series of chassis, suspension and engine parts to help make his Nash more competitive, but these were ultimately cited by NASCAR as not being legal for use.
In 1955, Hildreth opted to run the Modifieds and after some success in Neal Williams’ black No. 717 1937 Ford two-door sedan, he began to field his own orange and black No. 16-J 1937 Chevrolet coupe in 1958.
The various editions of the 16-Js – which always carried a small American flag whose wooden shaft was mounted on the right-front of the car – were Hildreth’s signature rides. Although small-block powered, they were fast, well-handling machines that gave him the edge at many of the tracks that he visited. And while Hildreth would occasionally change his engine’s triple-carburetion intake to fuel-injection, he would always return to his original setup.
A skillful and tough competitor and one of the best traffic drivers of his era, Hildreth was a top runner at such old New Jersey tracks as Vineland Speedway, where he won an all-time record of 33 races; Old Bridge Speedway and Alcyon Speedway in Pitman. He was also tough to beat at the old Wilmington (Del.) Speedway and at the old half-mile Nazareth (Pa.) Raceway.
Hildreth also won a major 100-lap event in 1960 on the old one-mile asphalt Trenton (N.J.) International Speedway and he was a regular at the big events on both the dirt and asphalt incarnations of the old one-mile Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway.
The “Wild Man” billing that Hildreth enjoyed was something that came to him honestly as he was not afraid to add a little bit of color and excitement to what was taking place on or off the track. It was not unusual for “the forever 39-year-old racer” to place a pair of Dixie cups under his shirt, slip on a wig and roll up his pant legs or put on a print dress so that he could compete in a Powder Puff Derby. And when it came time for the kids to ride around the track at Nazareth with their favorite driver, Hildreth’s 16-J always had a long line of eager youngsters who were anxious to have him do that job.
Hildreth even took “driver comfort” to a new level on a hot August Sunday in 1964 when he drove his No. 16-J in a major race at Trenton wearing nothing more than his helmet, a white athletic under shirt, a pair of white boxer shorts, and his shoes and socks.
When “sanctioning wars” looked like they might cause him a problem, he “disguised” himself by wearing a working man’s billed cap, a Vandyke beard, a long-sleeved work shirt and blue overalls and raced a No. 5 1937 Ford coupe at Langhorne under the assumed identity of the corn-cob-pipe-smoking “Hoss Hayes from Lexington, Kentucky.”
The highly-popular Hildreth retired from racing in 1973 and as an “elder statesman” of motorsports he was a welcomed guest at any racing activity where he enjoyed meeting people and took great pleasure in telling a wide variety of his unique racing stories.