Remembering Pete Hamilton’s Big Day In Daytona 500
It seemed a monumental mismatch.
Pete Hamilton, a relative newcomer to NASCAR's major series, vs. savvy, seasoned pro David Pearson, stock car racing's "Silver Fox."
In this case, on Feb. 22, 1970 during the Daytona 500, the relative rookie turned out to be "Goliath."
Even at that point in his storied career, Pearson was a giant. He had won 57 races and three championships. In contrast, Hamilton listed only 19 starts and one top-five finish.
Their confrontation 42 years ago rolls back into mind as the 500, NASCAR’s biggest event, looms again on Feb. 26.
As the race wound down 42 years ago at Daytona International Speedway, Pearson was the leader in his No. 17 Holman-Moody Ford. Hamilton, newly hired to drive a sleek, needle-nosed, rear-winged No. 40 Plymouth Superbird for Petty Enterprises as a teammate to Richard Petty, was in second place.
With 14 of the 200 laps remaining on the 2.5-mile Florida track, the engine failed in a Plymouth driven by Dick Brooks, forcing a caution flag.
Both Pearson and Hamilton pitted for fresh tires. Pearson's Charlotte-based crew opted for two right-sides only. Hamilton's team from little Level Cross, N.C., replaced all four tires.
Maurice Petty was the crew chief for Hamilton. Also in Pete's pit helping with the calls was Richard Petty, who had fallen out of the race on the seventh lap when his car's engine failed.
When the green showed, Hamilton surged into the lead on Lap 192, showing surprising power. He had led just four laps previously.
Although Hamilton was in front, Pearson was poised perfectly for an aerodynamic slingshot pass.
With two laps to go Pearson made his move entering the fourth turn. Pearson slipped slightly as he attempted to dive inside. The bobble was just enough for Hamilton to stay in front. He took the checkered flag three car lengths ahead for his first big-time victory.
At that time it was the greatest upset in the 12-year-history of NASCAR's most famous race.
Just like in the Bible, "Goliath" had fallen. And he had been beaten by a fairly inexperienced 27-year-old driver from Dedham, Mass., the son of a Harvard Ph.d.
"I felt I could run fast enough to keep David from slingshotting me if I could get in front," said the delighted, blond, lanky Hamilton following the race. "I thought my four fresh tires were going to be stronger than his two. And that's how it turned out.
"But for a split second when David made his move going into Turn 4 with two laps left…"
Both drivers appeared to lose traction just a bit.
"Did we get out of shape?" Hamilton said, responding to a question. "Did we ever!"
Hamilton widened his eyes for emphasis and pursed his lips as if to whistle.
"When I came off the fourth corner still in front on the last lap, I thought I was close enough to the finish line that I could just hang on."
And that's what Hamilton did, much to the astonishment of a crowd estimated at 103,000. Thousands more surprised fans watched the 500 on big screens at arenas across the country on a television hookup that carried the Teleprompter brand.
It was a pay-per-view deal. Best I recall, admission was $20.
One of the sites for TV viewing was Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, the home basketball court of Wake Forest's Demon Deacons.
It was almost time for the race to start before the Teleprompter signal from Daytona finally was attained. The picture was rather blurred and it seemed there were only three cameras focused on the action. But for NASCAR devotees, it beat not being there, especially for such a stunning outcome.
Race fans who nowadays complain about TV coverage don’t realize how lucky they have it.
But I digress...
Understandably, Pearson was deeply disappointed after dominating most of the final 250 miles.
"I just went sideways when I tried to make that late pass and I couldn't get the lost ground back," said the star from Spartanburg, S.C. "My tires got hot and slick. We probably should have changed all four tires that last pit stop."
In the press box for the winner's interview, Hamilton credited Richard Petty for guidance that put him in position to win.
"Richard and I did a lot of talking in the offseason in preparation for me making my first start for the family's team," said Hamilton. "What he kept saying really helped me."
A cliché probably as old as auto racing itself:
"To finish first, first you've got to finish."
Continued Hamilton, the tour's 1968 rookie of the year who nonetheless had no major circuit ride in '69:
"I remembered Richard's advice all through the race. I could have run with anybody. My car was a lot faster than I showed.
"But we had planned to take it easy until it counted, so that's what I did.
"Also, Richard is a genius when it comes to making a car handle in the turns. My car was more stable, it seemed, than any of the others."
King Richard, destined to win seven Daytona 500s, seven series championships and 200 races, agreed with Hamilton about both the strategy and the handling.
"Pete was patient and ran the fastest he did all day in the last 10 laps," said Petty. "He was beating David in the corners and that was the difference."
Hamilton showed his triumph was no fluke as he later swept both 1970 races at Daytona's fast sister track at Talladega, then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway.
Despite the success, Chrysler's racing brass moved Hamilton from Petty Enterprises to the team of Cotton Owens in 1971. Hamilton triumphed again at Daytona, but this time in the Firecracker 400 on July 4th.
Hamilton, hampered by the flare-up of a neck injury he had suffered in a Grand American Division race in 1969, made only five starts in 1972 and two in '73.
Although still a young man, he retired from the cockpit after this. But he didn't get out of racing.
Hamilton formed an Atlanta-based company and became very successful in building race cars, mostly of the short-track variety. Now 69, he's retired again.
Personable Pete didn't drive long enough to gain status as one of NASCAR's biggest stars.
But those who witnessed his sparkling victory in the Daytona 500 of 1970 never will forget him.