ROCKPORT — As a veteran New England concert promoter, national drag-car racing champion and ambitious business developer, Mark Hildonen lived each day of his life to its fullest.
But that life that touched many others was cut short.
Hildonen, 53, better known to many as "Mad Man Marko" — a nickname coined during his record-setting, "wheel standing" days on the nation's drag strips — died unexpectedly in his sleep Friday, April 3, in New Hampshire.
Hildonen's "free spirit," "zany antics" and "zest for life" will be missed by many, relatives, friends and acquaintances said yesterday.
"He was into so many different things ... I had someone tell me it was a shame he only lived to be 53, but he probably did more than most could accomplish in two lifetimes," said Hildonen's brother Jeffrey, also of Rockport.
Born in Addison Gilbert Hospital in 1956, Hildonen grew up in Rockport where he graduated with honors from Rockport High School in 1974. Hildonen attended summer session theatrical training at Montserrat Performing Arts in Beverly during his early high school years, but it was completion of a metal fabrication and welding course at Lynn Technical coupled with admiration of his older brother Jeff — a racer — that helped launch his legendary career in drag racing.
In 1971, at age 15, Hildonen became the youngest person at the time ever to compete in sportsman drag racing. He was too young to drive his own race car up to the track in New Hampshire himself, so Jeff recalled towing his little brother Mark's car to the track for his first race. Jeff, who owns JH Automotive, then worked on Mark's pit crew until Mark's racing career truly blossomed, eventually taking the team west of the Mississippi.
Mark quickly moved up the ranks and, by the age of 19, had become the youngest semiprofessional driver ever to finish in the Top 10 in the year-long points race in New England, qualifying for four national events.