We’ve lost more than just a legend. We’ve lost a great person.
I remember the day well. It was a beautiful September afternoon in 2004. Thanks to an act of kindness, I was able to attend the 50th US Nationals at Indy. For anyone into drag racing, Indy has always been the “big one,” and the 50th anniversary was quite a bash. To see all those legendary cars from days gone by on display, all the cars most of us could only know by black and white photos in old magazines, was a special thrill. I was taking in all the cars I loved so much when I was a youth, when a brilliant blue Willys caught my eye. There was something vaguely familiar about it, but my memory bank just didn’t remember it quite like the others, yet there was something about it that reeled me in. Getting closer, I could see the paint was flawless, the car pristine. A sweet lady beside the car said, “do you like it?” My reply of, “it’s gorgeous, I love it!” made her face light up in a way that told me she was truly in love with this car. “I built this car. Step behind these chains and I’ll tell you about it.” That was how I first met Barb Hamilton, a true legend. Her eyes sparkled when she told me about how it was all as it was originally built by she and her friend Nancy back in the early sixties. She positively glowed when she opened the trunk to reveal the same old battery that was in there from the beginning (so huge it was probably larger than most modern 4-cylinder engines) and tell me about how it helped get her extra traction. When I told her how I admired how awesome the blue paint was, she told me a wonderful story of how it was painted by a friend with Schwinn bicycle paint and still completely intact. Barb was such a great storyteller, telling me everything about the car and how she had enjoyed building and racing it. When our conversation was over, I thanked her for her time and I could tell she was every bit as thankful to tell the stories as I was to hear them. I left thinking she was such a wonderful lady. I had no idea. No idea that I had just left the presence of the first woman in drag racing to receive an NHRA license for driving supercharged cars. No idea I was talking to the person who won the 1966 NHRA Springnationals and was runner-up at the 1968 Indy Nationals. No idea she was the class C/G record holder. I had just left the presence of one of only a very few women who built, owned, wrenched, and drove her own race car. I’ve had the blessing of being around strong women all my life from my mom and sisters right on down to my own wife, and Barb Hamilton embodied the same qualities of a strong woman those ladies in my life do, the ones we all admire. She loved the sport, she loved to race, and set out to do just that. Nothing to draw attention to herself, no looking for special treatment, no agendas, just going out and getting the job done the way she wanted to do it. She was there to race whoever was in the other lane not to make a statement but because that’s what she wanted to do. And do it she did. All with a humble style and elegance.
I caught up with Barb again several years later and got to meet her racing partner, Nancy. Nancy was the quieter of the two, but very much cut from the same cloth as Barb in her own way. Barb, of course, was still the same as when I first met her. Still all smiles, still humble, still elegant, still as genuine as anyone could be. In this day and age, it’s rare to come across anyone in any sport like that. Especially someone who made history with accomplishments that should be shouted from the rooftops. I last saw Barb last fall at Bruce Larson’s Dragfest. I was going to say hello, but it looked like she and her husband were having a close moment and I didn’t want to interrupt that. I wish now I had circled back, but we never know when the last time we see someone will be. I’m thankful I got to meet that wonderful lady at Indy that day. My life and the lives of everyone who ever met her are richer for knowing Barb Hamilton. For now, I’ll remember my memory of her taking an exhibition pass down the strip at Thompson, Ohio in her beloved “Miss Blue.” Although she’ll be greatly missed, her accomplishments will live on.