A self-made man is the phrase most commonly used to describe Al Hamilton, who passed away on Dec. 7 at UPMC Lititz at the age of 91. To those in the world of open-wheel racing, he was known as one of the most successful sprint car owners in Pennsylvania.
Hamilton was the winningest car owner in the history of Williams Grove Speedway. His red (and sometimes blue) No. 77 sprinters carried some of sprint car racing’s biggest names to victory.
Proving level of education doesn’t always equal intelligence, Al become an incredibly successful businessman, armed with just a 10th-grade education.
Rising from very humble beginnings, he began his own business by collecting and selling coal from scrap piles dumped by the coal mining companies surrounding his Carnwath, Pennsylvania boyhood home.
Through hard work and determination, he eventually owned a massive coal business. Al Hamilton Contracting would become the second largest bituminous coal production company in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Other companies founded by Hamilton became successful in their respective industries, as well, and he invested in various real estate holdings.
It was in the mid-‘50s that Al discovered auto racing. Although he and his brother Joe had made the pilgrimage to witness the Indianapolis 500, it was the local Pennsylvania short tracks that caught his attention.
He began racing stock cars and proved to be a talented driver. In 1960, he competed in 36 races and took the checkers in 24 of them. In 1967, he made the move to sprint car racing, piloting a TrevisCraft sprinter. As in the stock cars, Hamilton showed talent as a sprint car driver, but soon made the decision to hire racers to drive his cars.
Several racers piloted his cars during his initial season, before Bobby Adamson took over the driving duties for four years, starting in 1969, and the duo accumulated 27 wins. Hamilton put a backup car in action, now running a two-car team with drivers like Smokey Snellbaker, Elmer Ruby, Billy Cassella, and Lee Osborne taking wins in the second car.
In the mid-‘70s, future Hall of Famers Lynn Paxton, Jan Opperman, Kramer Williamson, and Mitch Smith all had successful runs in the Hamilton car, with Smith earning 22 wins over the ‘76 and ‘77 seasons despite racing just one night per week.
But, following the ’77 season, Hamilton stepped away from sprint car racing. It appeared that his racing days were over.
It was nearly six years later when a conversation with Lynn Paxton brought Hamilton out of retirement. Paxton and Hamilton had much more than a driver-owner relationship. The two had been friends since the late-‘60s, long before Paxton was hired to drive Hamilton’s car.
They shared common interests, like snowmobiling, and were already on a pathway to becoming life-long friends.
Paxton was fresh off of a strong 1982 season, including a win at the Williams Grove National Open. However, his situation with car owner Maynard Boop had changed and Paxton had a ride, but no money to fund it.
Hamilton suggested the two race together, at first using Boop’s car carrying Hamilton’s graphics and number before buying some new equipment.
In what would be his final season as a driver, in 1983 Paxton drove a Hamilton car to 13 wins, including a repeat victory in the Williams Grove National Open.
Keith Kauffman came onboard as a second driver toward the end of ‘83 and, while Paxton stepped away following the conclusion of the season, Hamilton was back in action with Kauffman for ‘84.
Kauffman piloted the Hamilton ride through until 1988 and earned more than 80 wins before Stevie Smith took over the seat.
In 1990, Smith hit the World of Outlaws trail with Hamilton’s team. In total, Smith and Hamilton raced together for four-and-a-half seasons, earning more than 40 feature wins together.
Hamilton returned to competing locally in Pennsylvania in 1996. Midway through the season, he hired Fred Rahmer and the duo began a tremendous run together, earning 143 victories, before “Fast Freddie” and Lance Dewease swapped rides for the 2002 season, with Dewease also going on to claim numerous checkers in the now-legendary No. 77.
Greg Hodnett became the next future Hall of Famer to pilot Hamilton’s mount.
Hamilton was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2003, and was also an inductee to the Eastern Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and the York County Racing Club Hall of Fame.
In 2006, Rahmer and Hamilton joined forces one last time before the Hamilton sprint car team retired for good.
Those are the facts that will be revisited in the annals of racing history, but there was much more to the man than his racing statistics. He was a devoted Christian and a family man.
Al and his wife Betty ran the sprint car operation as a team, with Al’s brother Joe and grandson-in-law Moon Byers both serving as crew members over the years.
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