News & Media

Retro Racing: Hamilton does Petty proud

July 19, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Pete Hamilton may have been an unknown to most folks when he showed up in the Cup garage for the 1970 Daytona 500, but Richard Petty was well aware of Hamilton's talents when he decided to add the 27-year-old Massachusetts native as his teammate.

"We had watched him run in the Sportsman deal and watched him at Daytona and knew a little bit about him," Petty said. "He had also run some races for some boys out in Tennessee, so you pay attention to people that's got the talent, no matter what kind of equipment they're in. Pete was way above anybody else we had been looking at. And he proved us right."

"In fact, [the two, two-tire pits were] the reason why he won the race. He was outhandling everybody, including [David] Pearson."


Hamilton -- who celebrates his 70th birthday Friday -- scored one of the biggest upset victories in NASCAR history when he outdueled David Pearson in the closing laps to take the checkered flag in NASCAR's biggest race.

But Hamilton was no mere flash in the pan. He swept both Talladega races later that season, proving Petty to be a pretty good judge of driving talent.

Plymouth was itching to unveil its new high-winged Superbird for 1970, and wanted Petty Enterprises to expand to a two-car operation on high-banked speedways. Petty remembered the initial talks with the brass in Detroit about whom he should put in the other car.

"Plymouth gave us an idea of three or four drivers to drive one of the Superbirds," Petty said. "And Pete's name was dead on top, as far as we were concerned."

Hamilton may not have been a household name, but he was well-known in certain racing circles.

Hamilton started driving in Norwood Arena's street division in 1962, taking home a purse consisting of "10 bucks and a Coke" from his first race. Moving up the ladder, Hamilton began to make a name for himself in the Northeast when he captured a Thompson Speedway track championship three years later.

But, despite earning national championship honors in NASCAR's Sportsman Division in 1967, Hamilton realized he needed to move south if he wanted to get the attention of car owners in Cup.

He did just that in 1968, scoring six top-10 finishes in 16 starts and beating out Dave Marcis and Dr. Don Tarr for rookie of the year honors. But without a full-time ride the following year, Hamilton decided to run the Grand American Series instead, recording 12 wins in 26 races.

That definitely got the attention of both Plymouth and Petty, and Hamilton was hired to drive the No. 40 team car for selected races in 1970. And right from the first practice at Daytona, Hamilton proved to be fast and easy on his equipment.

"He had already run some superspeedway races," Petty said. "It wasn't a deal of us telling him how to drive the car. It was about him getting the car set up. The Superbird was brand new to everybody. Nobody knew really what to do with it."

Still, when it came to the race, Plymouth's main hopes rested on Petty's shoulders. But when Petty's engine blew just nine laps in, Hamilton found himself in the unexpected position of providing the main challenge to Pearson's Ford as the race wound down.

With 14 laps remaining, Hamilton followed Pearson into the pits for what was expected to be the final stop of the day for each, with both drivers taking two tires. But when Richard Brooks spun on the following lap, Petty -- stationed in Hamilton's pit -- alertly signaled Hamilton to come right back in for two more tires.

And when the race resumed, Hamilton's four fresher tires proved to be the difference.

"In fact, that's the reason why he won the race," Petty said. "He was outhandling everybody, including Pearson."

Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, Hamilton repeated his winning ways twice at Talladega. He scored 10 top-fives, finishing 21st in the points despite running just 16 of 48 races. Moving over to Cotton Owens for 1971, Hamilton won a Daytona qualifier and a pair of poles. But soon after, manufacturers began withdrawing their support -- and money.

And Hamilton wound up being the odd man out.

"He went out and won three big races [for Petty Enterprises]," Petty said. "Daytona and a couple of Talladegas. He done a really, really good job. Then, the factories got out of it so we didn't have a ride for him, but he done a super job for us."

Hamilton retired as a driver two years later, walking away from the sport at age 30. He became a respected car builder and was inducted into the inaugural class of the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame in 1998.