The Frontstretch: Wicked Fast - Driven To The Past: Pete Hamilton by Vito Pugliese -- Thursday June 7, 2007

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Wicked Fast - Driven To The Past: Pete Hamilton

Vito Pugliese · Thursday June 7, 2007

 

With Martin Truex, Jr. winning this past Monday at Dover, it got me to thinking about how many memorable drivers in our sport hail from the North Eastern United States. With nearly a ¼ of the schedule run in this part of the country, Dover, New Hampshire, Watkins Glen, and this weekend's race in Pocono, contribute quite a bit to the foundation of NASCAR. The place where America was born, guys capping some British because they were bent about the price of their favorite breakfast beverage going up, is also home to one of the great names in NASCAR lore, Pete Hamilton. While he would end up making about as many career starts as Martin Truex, Jr. has to date, he made the most of his moment in the spotlight by winning NASCAR's biggest prize in only his 2nd attempt, proving the old racing axiom true: to finish first, you first must finish.

Peter Hamilton was born July 20th, 1942 in Dedham, Massachusetts. He would begin his racing career as so many before him, in the street stock class at his local track, the Norwood Arena. He would win his first championship in 1965, and later the NASCAR Sportsman Championship in 1967. Following this success he would move into the Grand Am division, a hybrid series of sorts that ran sport coupes such as the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, Mercury Cougar, and others. He would garner Rookie of The Year honors in 1968, and won nearly half of the series schedule in 1969 with 12 victories in 26 starts. He would also suffer a neck injury that season that would come back to haunt him shortly thereafter. With Pete's rise to success, he caught the eye of a couple of very important groups in the sport: Petty Enterprises and the Chrysler Corporation.

While Pete Hamilton was busy winning races in Trans Am-esque Grand Am division, the Big 3 were involved in a game of perpetual one-upsmanship, each one building a more outrageous superspeedway car. Dodge was out of the gates first with the swoopy Coke-bottle Charger in 1968, although it proved to look a lot faster than it actually was. Ford countered with the Torino. Dodge countered with the 1969 Dodge Charger 500, the 500 representing the number of cars that needed to be built to meet homologation requirements, so it could be raced. Back then in NASCAR if you wanted to race it, the public had to be able to buy it.

Try that with a new Camry.

After the Charger came the Mercury Cyclone Spoiler II and Torino Talladega. Dodge then went scorched earth and brought out a car that pushed the boundaries of rationale, the Dodge Charger Daytona, with its 3-foot nose cone and even taller rear wing. Conspicuous in their absence of all this technology was Plymouth. The preferred ride of The King of stock car racing was making due with the barn door Road Runner. Nails on the drag strip, the Road Runner possessed all the aerodynamics of a cinder block on the big tracks. Petty was taken aback when told that there was not a Plymouth counterpart to the Dodge Daytona, and that he was a Plymouth man, and was not going to get a Dodge. Well, Chrysler was right. Petty was not going to get a Dodge.

He got a Ford instead.

This did not sit well with the brass in Highland Park, so something needed to be done. Namely, get the Road Runner on equally footing with the Charger Daytona and the FoMoCo products and Petty back in a Plymouth. Well they did just that. Taking a Road Runner, and applying the front fenders and hood from a Dodge Coronet and giving it a unique nose cone, Plymouth created the 1970 Superbird, with the express intent of getting Richard Petty back in a Mopar. They succeeded in doing that, and even sponsored a 2nd factory-backed effort, that of the No. 40 Plymouth Superbird, which also carried sponsorship from 7-Up. His first outing in the new winged thing was at Daytona, and although all eyes were on Petty, Hamilton's machine would prove the one to beat.

He would start the race in 9th position, and heeding the advice that Richard Petty had offered him, ran easy the first half of the event. Richard must not have gotten the memo; his Hemi went to Elephant Motor heaven on lap 9, and retired from the event. However this worked to Hamilton's favor. Not only did he have one less car to beat, he had an ally in his pit stall. This would pay off late in the race, when Hamilton and David Pearson would make their final stops of the day. Pearson's No. 17 team went for left side tires, while Hamilton's team took rights. While they were pitting, a caution came out for a spinning car, and Richard Petty made the audible to change all four tires.

What happened next was one of the greatest last lap duels in the history of The Great American race. Hamilton got around Pearson with 9 laps to go, and was working hard to hold him off. Everyone knew the slingshot was coming, including Hamilton. Pearson and his left side tires made an attempt to go under Hamilton through turn four, but the Silver Fox was missing something. Namely, right side tires and those gigantic 4-foot tall rudders on the rear quarter panels. Pearson’s car was smoking the tires and sideways through turn 4, barely hanging on to it. Hamilton was running high, wide, and handsome; the big Plymouth not so much as twitching with another car on it's inside.

Kind of hard to take the air off someone's spoiler, when you could do a pull-up on it.

Truly a team victory, with Petty assisting with strategy from the pits, the 27-year-old rookie had won the biggest race of his career in his first stab at it in a real car. While in Victory Lane, the first thing asked Pete by legendary reporter Chris Economacki was, "Pete, do you know many girls?" in his trademark nasally monotone pitch. Hamilton barring more than a passing resemblance to fellow New Englander Ricky Craven, looked more like he was 17 than 27, his youthful exuberance shinning through after doing nearly the impossible.

While Hamilton would not run an entire season, he would run a majority of the superspeedway races. He didn't miss a beat, winning both events at Talladega. At the 2nd Talladega race, he would make a mockery of the event, leading 153 of 188 laps. This was well before restrictor plates kept everyone on the same page. The only other car on the lead lap was Bobby Isaac's Dodge Daytona. Richard Petty finished 7th………..five laps down. He would win the pole at Michigan finishing 2nd to Cale Yarborough by only .30 of a second. He had the fall race at Charlotte nearly in the bag before a late race crash ended his hopes for a 4th victory. He would finish the season as the first driver to win over $100,000 on superspeedways in a season.

Unfortunately, this would be the first and only ride for Hamilton in Petty Enterprises racecar. In 1971 the performance craze was over, and the manufacturers were cutting back substantially on their racing efforts. This meant one factory team for Plymouth, and that was Richard Petty. Hamilton would move over to drive the No. 6 Plymouth Road Runner for Cotton Owens. Unfortunately the reliability wasn't what he once had with Petty Enterprises. A series of engine failures, mechanical issues, and crashes kept Pete from making any serious progress, though he did manage to win the then-points paying Qualifying race at Daytona.

Pete would retire for the most part following the 1971 season, and enjoy a career as a successful car builder and engineer. He would make a handful of starts in 1972 and 1973, but a nagging neck injury suffered in a 1969 Grand Am race would keep him from any continued competition. Although his stint in the big time was brief, he defiantly made hay while the sun was shinning. With Hamltion's neck injury stymieing any real shot at continued success, I was reminded of how many drivers from the North East that seem to have careers that were hampered by injury: Ricky Craven, Jerry Nadeau, and Steve Park come to mind right off the bat. By winning the Daytona 500 in 1970 against one the number two all-time wins leader, The Gentleman Racer from Dedham, Massachusetts is further proof that there must be something in the chowder up there.

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