Trailblazing US drag racer Barbara Hamilton passes away at age 78

We remember US drag racer Barbara Hamilton, the first woman to be NHRA-licensed to race a blown car


PIONEERING American drag racer Barbara Hamilton passed away on 23 April at the age of 78.

Hamilton made history as the first woman to be granted a licence to race a supercharged vehicle by the NHRA, back in 1964. Based out of Cleveland, Ohio, Hamilton raced with her best friend Nancy Leonello.

According to Doug Boyce’s book 1001 Drag Racing Facts, Hamilton had been piloting a friend’s BB/GS ’34 coupe – while still in high school! – and was keen to step up to the national stage. This took two years of continuously campaigning the NHRA hierarchy. After she received many rejection letters, the track managers of Dragway 42 and Quaker City both wrote letters on her behalf to the sanctioning body. “In August 1964, I finally received a letter from the NHRA stating that I could go to Dragway 42 the following week and be tested for a licence,” Barbara was quoted as saying in Boyce’s book.

The car Hamilton passed her licence test in was the electric blue 1937 Willys coupe that she co-owned and built with Nancy Leonello. The car was was initially powered by a small-block Chev, topped by a 4/71 blower and two-port Hilborn fuel injection. The pair towed the car behind Leonello’s ’65 Impala.

Thus equipped, Hamilton took out the CC/GS class at the 1966 NHRA Springnationals. She also claimed the national NASCAR C/GAS record to the tune of 11.94 seconds (yes, NASCAR ran its own drag racing series for a few years in the mid-60s).

Things took a turn for the worse when the team applied to run at the Indy Nationals in 1967. “I received a letter from Jack Hart, the executive director of the NHRA […] stating that from this point forward, no women will be allowed to drive in any other class except Stock, Super Stock and Street Eliminator,” Barbara told Boyce. “I contacted Jack Hart for an explanation. […] I had done nothing wrong, no racing infractions, had competed in at least five national events and won one [but] I could not get an explanation.

It then emerged that three other female racers had also had their licences revoked by the NHRA. One of them, Paula Murphy, filed a class-action lawsuit, which resulted in all four female racers having their licences reinstated in January 1968 and a fifth being granted to future legend and trailblazer, Shirley Muldowney.

By this time, Hamilton and Leonello had upgraded to a 6/71 blower and four-port injection. That combination took Hamilton to the finals of her class at the 1968 NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis. The Willys reportedly ran a best-ever time of 10.10 seconds and a best speed of 126.40mph.

Hamilton retired from racing in 1971, but held on to her Willys, which now resides in the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. She was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1992 and won the Pat Garlits Mermorial Award in 2014.

There is a cool article on by Phil Burgess that goes into more detail about Hamilton and Leonello’s career and their later lives. You can check it out here, but we’ll leave you with a couple of great quotes from the lady herself:

“There were so many great memories,” Hamilton said in 2006, when she was named the Grand Marshal of the NHRA Hot Rod Reunion. “Two gals in their early 20s, racing a blown Willys in supercharged gas coupe and sedan class traveling the Midwest; it doesn’t get any better than that.

“I think in many ways that we were pioneers. I think most of us owned, built, tuned, and drove our own cars. We didn’t have crate motors, fully assembled cylinder heads, electronics, and computers. We bought parts from junkyards and built short blocks in our backyard garages. It didn’t cost us a whole lot of money and most anyone could do it. I sometimes feel sad that some young people today couldn’t compete as I did back then. I am glad that I raced when I did. It was simple and fun back then. It is very much a job today.”