“50 for 50” is a new series on Speed51.com that will tell the 50 best stories to have ever come out of the Snowball Derby. The stories will focus on the legendary tales of the event as we prepare for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby on December 3.
When the past winners take the stage this year during the 50th Annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida there will be an open spot for one driver who didn’t get to see the race one more time. Pete Hamilton was widely known for his Daytona success, but us short track junkies knew him for his Pensacola success. The Massachusetts driver passed away in March of this year just months before the golden anniversary of the Snowball Derby.
I got a chance to talk to Hamilton in 2012 and it was an amazing conversation about the way it was at Pensacola in 1970’s. Hamilton ran in an era where few got to witness his talent, but those who did could recall how good he was. The Derby wasn’t even 10 years old and Hamilton told us it was already a big deal in the short track scene. Here is the story as it ran five years ago. Godspeed, Pete. Enjoy the view from above. – Elgin Traylor
By the end of 1971, Pete Hamilton’s dream of being a full-time NASCAR Grand National driver had fallen by the wayside. He had already made history by becoming the first New England driver to win the Daytona 500 with Petty Enterprises in 1970. However, the downward spiral of big car manufacturers like Chrysler getting out of the sport for a brief time landed Hamilton in Norcross, Georgia.
“We built a Late Model,” said Hamilton, a Massachusetts native. “Back in New England, most teams built their own cars. It wasn’t uncommon, so that’s what we did.”
Building Late Models in Georgia quickly got Hamilton praise as a car owner. The first year he built a Chevelle and that was the final time that particular style was used on a short track car from Hamilton. A Camaro body replacement was made and well the rest was history.
The weekly tracks around the southeast and even the dusty bullrings had a flavor of Hamilton race cars in the 70’s. Most of them found victory lane. Perhaps nothing made car sales easier for Hamilton than his accomplishment in December of 1974 – winning the Snowball Derby at Pensacola, Florida’s Five Flags Speedway.
“The Pensacola race track and our car just fit well together,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton was a regular at Five Flags Speedway. He would go south and run the Friday night shows and hop from track to track. In 1973 he captured the pole for the Snowball Derby and repeated the effort a year later. Since then, only Mike Alexander has won the pole in consecutive seasons.
“The Snowball was the crowning racing in the short track scene,” Hamilton added. “At Pensacola, the trick was not speed; it was to think of it small. To think of it as fighting for fifty feet versus fifty yards. You had to pay attention to detail as to where the car had to go.”
December 8, 1974 was the date and Hamilton started from the pole before adding his name to the history books.
“Myself and Bobby Allison were racing there that day. There may have been other Grand National drivers there as well. Even at that time, there was a combination of cars that were the very best in short track racing. The cars were a bit different from each area, from Birmingham, Greenville, Charlotte, Detroit and the Chicago area. All different. We saw them at the Derby and at the World Series (at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway in February). It was quite a group of short track racing (drivers).”
When Hamilton rode under the checkered flag in front of Dickie Davis’ bid for a third Derby win, he made his own history. Hamilton became the first driver to win the Daytona 500 and the Snowball Derby. It would not be done again until 1989 when Darrell Waltrip, already a Snowball Derby winner in 1976, won the Daytona 500. Hamilton also became the only driver to win the Smyrna Speedweeks title and the Snowball Derby in the same year.
To this day, Hamilton was unaware of some of his records.
“That’s very interesting. I did not know that,” Hamilton admitted. “Daytona never intimidated me, I got used to the speed. I knew about the speed. I don’t know why I was comfortable with the speed, I just was. I didn’t have to hold my breath.”
The Snowball Derby paved the way to selling more race cars and bigger names started to buy the machines out of the Atlanta region. Only a few years later Ronnie Sanders would purchase a car which had part of the rear end of the 1974 car that won the Snowball Derby. That Sanders ride won the 1977 Snowball Derby.
Hamilton would run a few more seasons before finally calling it quits and moving back to New England. He would tag along to the Snowball for several more years as well.
When asked to reflect on his time spent at the Snowball Derby he sung a tune that has become a traditional response to anyone who has experienced the race.
“It’s all about the type of people that were coming down there to race at that time of year when nothing else is going on,” Hamilton said. “Everybody who can’t stand it sitting home ends up in Pensacola to race. You might have some 100 cars there to fill 35 to 40 spots. It’s a competitive thing getting into the show, let alone running good. We were aware of all of that. It took to me well at that point in my career. It fit me like a glove.”
Hamilton would win the Rattler 100 the next spring at South Alabama Speedway. In only a few short years, he won the biggest shows in racing and walked away with a good living thanks to real estate investments in the Atlanta area. Just a few weeks back he was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame which has some of his artifacts including the one and only helmet he ever wore.
-By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: Dave Westerman’s Florida Racing History