After having the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Hamilton recently, it came to my attention that much of his success was due to his very positive attitude and his concern for excelling in whatever he was doing. He has had many recognizable achievements, accomplished by years of hard work and a continuous positivity about life.
For the past 30 years many racers and engine builders know Lee Hamilton, Midwest Regional Sales Rep, as the face of Manley Performance Parts, however, before his time at Manley, Lee left his mark on drag racing. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Lee Hamilton in his hometown of Quincy, Illinois, and listened to him reminisce of a time in drag racing that I long to visit.
From an early age Lee had a passion for cars so it was no surprise that his first job in 1960 was at the Standard Gas Station in Ursa, Illinois. Next, he went to Fowler, Illinois, to work with his Uncle Frank Woodworth, where he did auto repair. Lee had the blood of a true mechanic as he states, “All of the Uncles on his mother’s side of the family were mechanics.” This was also the same time period that Lee took his street racing expertise and began drag racing at the strip. Lee’s next job was at Well’s Auto Wrecking, then on to the Chevrolet dealership where he worked in the body shop for a year. Later, Lee went to work at Well’s Used Car Lot in Quincy. Then, from 1966-1969 he returned to the Chevrolet dealership, but this time as a mechanic.
In 1969, Lee decided that he was ready to be self-employed. He and his buddy David Degitz started their own garage in Quincy where they opened the Hamilton and Degitz Performance Center. “We weren’t there very long when we got robbed; somebody came in and took everything!” Johnny Meeks, from the Chevrolet dealership, heard about it on the radio and Monday morning asked me to come back and work for them. They would buy me new tools and I could pay them off a couple dollars a week. Lee thanked Johnny but was determined to try it again.
Good luck was headed his way when just one year later, Lee and David were presented with an opportunity that they just couldn’t pass up. They were asked by Dick Harrell to run his performance center in Kansas City, Missouri. This was an exciting but difficult time for Lee as his wife and two young children were back in Quincy. After a year, Lee decided to return home and re-open the garage under the name of Lee Hamilton Performance Center. His friend David Degitz stayed in Kansas City and continued to run the Dick Harrell Performance Center.
During that time, Lee was kept busy with a thriving business focused mostly on general auto repairs. As a result, he changed the name to the Lee Hamilton Auto Center. He and his staff were no strangers to hard work and he often found himself working 12 hour days. Lee continued his business until 1986 when he closed it to pursue the positon of Midwest Regional Sales Representative for Manley Performance Parts. “I’ve been there ever since, and won numerous sales awards.”
Listening to Lee recall his early days of racing takes us back to 1964 when the excitement had gotten to Lee and some of his buddies. His brother John, David Degitz, Jim Caley and Lee all decided to go racing. After a trip to the dragstrip at Kahoka, Missouri, they spotted a car for sale called “The Possum Chaser”. Ed Brugge from Fairfield, Iowa, was selling the car because he was ready to get out of drag racing and try something different. “Big Ed, what do you want for it”, asked Lee and his buddies. Big Ed would sell it for $1500, so the four guys pooled their money and bought the 1949 Crosley Station Wagon.
The first night they raced it back at Kahoka. Lee was driving and went 3 rounds and was into the money round. They were going to race a guy named Jerry Smeltzly, who had a really good running Crosley Roadster. Big Ed ran up asking to drive the car, determined to beat those guys one more time. Lee agreed. Big Ed dumped the clutch, got out to about 100 feet and broke the axle and the car went rolling. “The next thing I see is Big Ed flying out the door and landing in the grass,” Lee said. Lee was worried that Big Ed was dead but although he was banged up Big Ed was ok. “And there was our race car . . . totaled, it totaled it out! We got in and out of racing as quick as anybody I know!” The “Possum Chaser” was dead. Lee never heard from him after that night.
L-R Lee Hamilton, David Degitz, Jim Caley with their wrecked race car after the first race they attended. Lee Hamilton Photo
After the wreck, the crew of four tried to figure out what to do with a totaled race car and very little money in their racing budget. Their race car may have been ruined but their determination was as strong as ever. The four went to Well’s Auto Wrecking and as luck would have it they found a 1949 Crosley Station Wagon and bought it. They began the tedious task of taking parts off the wrecked car and putting them on the junk yard wagon all the while trying to figure out what had happened. They learned that it had a 1955 Chevy rear end that had been narrowed up but the axles were just chopped off and welded back together. Lee realized that it had broken right at the weld, “Wow, the good Lord was looking after me there, because that was a disaster waiting to happen. I’m just glad that Big Ed wasn’t hurt worse than he was that night. He didn’t have a seat belt on which is why he came flying out of the car. Maybe that was a good thing, because the entire roof was really smashed. Big Ed was about 6’4” and had a helmet on, but I honestly I think he thought that he would just jump in real quick and make this one pass. That was real scary and I have to say that it was the dumbest thing that I was ever a part of.”