Heather “The Heat” Hadley is the newest Legends Car champion, capturing the Silver State Winter Series Semi-Pro top honor in Las Vegas with four wins, four more podium finishes and the Rookie of the Year title.
She raced in the Semi-Pro division, winning her debut on the last corner of the last lap and putting down a fastest lap time of all classes in a single day and qualified first out of every car in attendance.
Hadley also made it into the top five of the Pro and Master classes.
She earned her championship Feb. 10, the last race day of the series.
“So far, I’d say that this has been my greatest achievement, especially since I’m the first female to win both a (championship) and a main event,” she said
She not only won four of eight races, she finished second twice and third twice.
But wait, there’s more. “Two years in a row that I ran Legends, I won championships in the nation and state in both road course and circle track,” she said.
No wonder her nickname is “The Heat.”
While some of the races leading into the championship were dramatic, Hadley realized she had the championship in her grasp after the third race weekend in the series.
“I was so ahead in points, and it was mathematically impossible not to win,” she said. “I won the Semi-Pro Division, which had 14 cars total.”
If Hadley was monitoring her championship stats, the Rookie of the Year award caught her by surprise.
“I didn’t even think about winning Rookie of the Year until one of the guys running the event told me that I was eligible.”
Nor is the 17-year-old resting on her laurels. While her father, Damon, was busy bragging on his daughter, she was heading from Las Vegas, Nev., to Albuquerque, N.M., to practice oval racing for the week.
“I will be at the track and very busy,” the young racer said.
Hadley is the first female to win the championship, her father, Damon, said. But this is the latest in a series of accomplishments for the Bay Area driver who entered racing at 9 at Driven Raceway, an indoor karting track in Fairfield.
“I raced there consistently for about six months, until I transitioned to outdoor professional karting, where I began at Simraceway’s Jim Russell program,” she said. Simraceway is the kart track at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma County.
Anyone who watched her at the indoor kart track could tell she had the drive. “I had won 104 out of 107 races, with a 99.98 winning percentage,” she said.
She progressed to driving kart races in Dixon, Davis, Stockton, Fresno, Reno, Rairie City, Stockton and Sonoma Raceway, mentored first by her father and then by Phil Joy, the Benicia owner of a house moving company who has been a state, national and world champion in the Master Class of Legends racing.
“My dad worked on the cars, came to every race and supported me in everything I did,” she said. “He taught me to have a great work ethic and to put myself out there as much as I could.
“Phil Joy helped me all the way into cars and has never stopped believing in me.”
In the outdoor races, Hadley drove two different types of karts and engines, often leaving a track with two separate trophies after a weekend of racing.
“I finished off the first season with a fifth place in the WKA Series,” and a total of 17 karts.
“The next couple of seasons, I won two Gold Rush Series, two Race of Champions Championships at Sonoma Raceway, and two second place (positions0 for Race of Championship.”
Moving to the KPX Karting level, she finished first in the championship her first year, and second in another.
She’s been gathering attention along the way. “Before Legends, I was marketed by Mazda Motorsports for seven months, on the back of Racer and SCCA Monthly,” she said. “They also let me speak at the SCCA Runoffs at Laguna Seca.”
It hasn’t all been trophies and cheers, however. “I broke my left wrist in a karting accident at Simraceway,” she said. She was just 10. But she tried driving with a brace on the broken wrist. “Somebody drove over the top of my kart, arm and wrist,” she remembered.
That put her racing career on pause for six months. But she wasn’t done.
Although she’s enjoyed trying her hand at other sports, “but once I started racing, I got hooked and never could quit,” she said. “Racing gives me an indescribable feeling that nothing else in life has come close to.”
Three years ago, Hadley moved to Legends. “The people whom I had known through racing karts, Phil Joy and Steve Wilson, convinced me that racing a Legend car would be the best option for me to transition into from karts,” she said.
“I just went straight from karts into cars, learning to shift, race oval and road course in what are the most difficult cars to race in the world,” she said.
She’s been driving a car that’s designed along the lines of a 1934 Chevrolet coupe, although she’s also had a sedan model.
“When it comes to Legend cars, the difficulty is probably my favorite aspect of racing them. Because they are so challenging to drive and the competitive aspect is so intense, I am forced to push myself as a driver every time I get into the seat.”
Still, she draws on that kart experience, which she said has been a tremendous foundation. “I can drive smooth, using my front and rear tires, instead of being aggressive and hard on the car. Karts has also helped me with driving technique, like passing and close racing, where I can use my brain instead of my wallet.”
Hadley is so used to racing that when she’s driving on the streets, she notices that the habits of drafting and qualifying become tailgating and speeding under conventional driving situations. “But as of now, I have zero tickets – so let’s hope to keep it that way!”
Like Daytona 500 pole winner William Byron, Hadley is juggling school and racing, although Byron is in college and Hadley is in high school.
She has been a junior at Redwood High School, Marin, but she recently transferred to Tamiscal High School, Larkspur, an alternative school that allows her schedule to be more flexible so she can pursue racing at a higher level.
One of her friends and classmates, Lyla, has been alongside her since the start of her racing career, Hadley said.
“She has supported me, guided me and come out to many races. She enjoys the action andshe loves cars, so at least the mechanical aspect is intriguing to her a little,” Hadley said.
Other classmates know she’s a racer and sometimes mention it in school, Hadley said. Of course, she’s also used her sport as a topic in more than one of her school writing assignments.
So far this year, Hadley has raced in that Silver State Winter Series in Las Vegas. In the 2017-18 season, she hit a variety of California tracks, competing at Sonoma Raceway, Madera Speedway, All American Speedway, Stockton 99, Thunderhill Raceway Park and Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
Looking ahead, she’ll be traveling in two different Legends cars, racing both circle tracks and road courses this year. She also intends to focus on certain aspects of racing – “Staying true to myself, never cheating or dirty driving.”
In 2020, she’ll move into the Pro Division, an even higher division of Legends Cars.
“Pro is more competitive, with older drivers who have more experience,” she said.
Hadley has her sights set on another division, too – Late Models, which she ohopes to be driving by the end of the year.
“Moving into Late Models and winning a championship will definitely qualify me for getting a sponsorship from Toyota, so that’s the goal!” she said.
“The ultimate goal in racing is NASCAR, but at the end of the day, I still would be interested in driving anything and everything,” she said.
NASCAR has a Drive for Diversity program, which encourages women and minorities to become involved in motorsports competition, as drivers, pit crew members or at other levels.
Hadley said she feels the program is helpful. ‘I hope that in the future, I am given an opportunity from that program. That would truly be a dream come true.”
She sees racing as a sport that provides more life lessons than other types of contests. “It has taught me to never give up – sounds cliché, but I have reached rock bottom. It has taught me how to think, breathe and react under pressure (and) stress, and that I am much stronger than I thought I was.
While there are times Hadley is the only woman on the track, she sees that changing in the future.
“I know that like everything in current years and the ones to come, women are progressively beginning to become more involved,” she said, not only on equal footing but at times taking over certain areas.
“Women in racing definitely didn’t end with Danica. She was only the beginning,” she said of Danica Patrick, the woman driver who until recently competed both in IndyCars and at NASCAR’s premiere Cup level.
“She is inspiring in that she was the only female in the Cup series of NASCAR and wasn’t afraid to break boundaries and stand up to men,” Hadley said.
“But I want to be bigger and better than Danica by creating my own path and breaking my own boundaries,” she said. “First female to win a Cup race? I’m in!”