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.
Hildonen re-wrote the record books throughout the late 1970s and into the early '80s from behind the wheels of his Chevrolet Monza wheel stander, "Young American," and Volkswagen Beetle wheel stander, "Super Bug."
"Mad Man Marko" became the youngest person at 20 to ever obtain a professional National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Wheel Stand exhibition driver's license, and went on to win four national championships, set six national records and establish 32 track records.
"It took him about a year to get that license, there are only about 14 wheel-stand licensed drivers in the NHRA at any one time," Hildonen said. "He would drive a quarter-mile with the (front) wheels off the ground going between 135 and 160 miles per hour; it was exhibition, not competitive, but when they got going, they were racing."
In addition to drawing gallons of ink's worth of coverage in the published press, Hildonen was also featured in nine national television appearances, including on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," when he became the first drag racer to bring wheel-stand drag exhibitions to Puerto Rico — a drag style he also brought to Newfoundland.
Rockporters got their chance to see him in action one Fourth of July when he drove his dragster down Main Street — it may have been without permission, but certainly a spectacle no resident would soon forget.
From his racing, Hildonen moved on to his second passion, music, managing bands and producing sold-out concerts and nationwide tours. Acts featured in shows produced by Hildonen included Cheap Trick, Twisted Sister, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Cash, Ringo Starr, Huey Lewis and the News, and Steppenwolf, just to name a few.
Most recently, Hildonen was CEO of M-O-H Inc. and M-O-H Enterprises Inc., based in New Hampshire, in the business of developing amusement-leisure properties and resorts known as WaterSnoGo. The entertainment complexes, sold as franchises throughout the nation, feature indoor mountain skiing with real snow and indoor/outdoor water parks as well as retail and hotel space.
In Rockport, Hildonen drew some fire — and civil suits — when he was part owner of the controversial Cape Ann Tool Co. property in Pigeon Cove. A proposal by Hildonen to bring a gas station and a national cigar boat racing center to the property was approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals, but was blocked by a civil action filed by an abutter with the support of a grass-roots group known as Sandy Bay Watch.
Jeff said Mark walked away from the property — now owned by Christopher Kaneb and his brother's Old Colony Maritime LLC — about five years ago.
Hildonen passed away in his motor coach, the vehicle he used to pull the trailer containing his fully-restored Chevy. The former "Young American" vehicle was known today as the "WaterSnoGo" and driven by Hildonen as part of a 35th anniversary tour promoting his recreational complexes.
"He loved the racing, absolutely loved it," Jeff said, holding back tears. "He loved the concerts, too; to him, he was on top of the world with all these different projects."
Friends and family are invited to a celebration of Hildonen's life, to be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at the 650-seat Fuller Auditorium off Blackburn Circle in Gloucester, with a reception to follow.
Jonathan L'Ecuyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.