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Pete Hamilton, 1970 Daytona 500 Champion, 1942-2017

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Pete Hamilton with his Petty Enterprises Plymouth Superbird prior to the start of the 1970 Daytona 500. Photo by Skeensss.

Pete Hamilton, winner of the 1970 Daytona 500, died earlier this week at the age of 74.

A native of Dedham, Massachusetts, Hamilton began his racing career in 1962 at the age of 19, where he competed weekly at the now defunct Norwood Arena (a 1/4-mile paved oval in Norwood, Massachusetts, where NASCAR legend Ralph Moody also began his driving career). His talent behind the wheel of both Sportsman and Modified division cars led him to numerous victories throughout the region, including Albany-Saratoga Speedway and Thompson Speedway. During the 1967 season, Hamilton competed in the NASCAR Sportsman Division (today’s Xfinity Series), an effort that culminated with him being crowned the series champion.

His success in the Sportsman Division prompted Hamilton to travel south to take on the NASCAR Grand National (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) regulars during the 1968 season, where he made his first start at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway in a Ford owned by Rocky Hinton. Hamilton started 11th in the 28-car field and finished 12th. He would go on to start nine more races for Hinton before moving over to A.J. King’s Dodge for six races, finishing the season with three top five’s (including a second place finish at Smoky Mountain Raceway) and a half-dozen top-10s, earning him the 1968 NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors.

In 1969, Hamilton made three starts in the top NASCAR series – two at Daytona for A.J. King and one at Atlanta for Banjo Matthews — however, his primary focus was a full-time ride in the short-lived NASCAR Grand Touring (and later renamed Grand American) Series. Although Hamilton would start 26 of the season’s 35 races, he led all drivers with 12 victories. This effort, in part, caught the attention of Petty Enterprises, which was looking to continue their multi-car effort for the 1970 season with a pair of new Plymouth Superbirds. Having displayed an incredible talent for negotiating the draft on NASCAR’s fastest superspeedways, Petty and Hamilton reached an agreement that would put the New Englander in a Petty blue Plymouth for 16 races, starting at Daytona.

During his qualifying race, Hamilton started sixth in the 50-lap dash and finished fifth, which put him ninth on the starting grid for the Daytona 500. With Maurice Petty – Richard’s brother and Petty enterprises engine builder – calling the shots in the pits, Hamilton kept a careful pace behind the leaders as attrition took its toll on the 40-car field. Pole sitter Cale Yarborough, teammate Richard Petty, and hard-charger Buddy Baker, all suffered mechanical failures, along with Donnie Allison and A.J. Foyt. As the last 100 miles began to click off, Hamilton had to that point led only 4 laps of the contest; however, he jumped into the lead with nine laps remaining and never looked back, winning in stunning fashion. Proving it was no fluke, Hamilton would go on two win both Talladega races (Daytona’s sister track) for the Petty team, while amassing 10 top-fives and a dozen top-10 finishes during the season.

For 1971, Hamilton joined forces with car owner Cotton Owens for 20 races (he had two additional starts in NASCAR races at Malta and Islip for Junior Fields), and although he won the pole for two events, Hamilton won his Daytona qualifying race. It would prove to be his last win in the top NASCAR touring series. His last Cup start occurred at the 1973 Atlanta 500, driving an underfunded Plymouth, closing his career with four wins, three poles, 26 top five’s and 33 top 10 finishes. It should be noted that he continued short track racing briefly, winning the 1974 Snowball Derby in his own late model.

Hamilton would stay involved in racing. Continuing to live in the Atlanta area, he would gain notoriety as a successful chassis builder for Sportsman competitors — which, arguably, paved the way for other notable New Englanders to invade the NASCAR circuit — while he diversified his portfolio in commercial real estate. In 1991, Hamilton made one more start in a NASCAR Cup car for the one-off All-Star Legends contest at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s newly minted quarter-mile where a crash on lap 9 ended his day. In 1998, he was inducted into the New England Auto Racers Hall of Fame.