Heather Hadley is just 17, but she’s an eight-year auto racing veteran who has earned seven championship trophies and is setting her sights on more accomplishments.
She is a Vallejo native who lives part time there and part time in Larkspur, where she attends Tamiscal High School. The school accommodates her racing schedule. And she’s being mentored on the tracks by Benicia’s own Legends world champion, Phil Joy.
The training has paid off. Three of those trophies are in the Legends class. One came this February, when she became the first woman Silver Star Semi-Pro Champion in Las Vegas, earning four wins, for additional podium finishes and the Rookie of the Year title.
She’s referred to as “The Heat.” While it sounds like she earned it for burning speed on the track, the name came from a different source.
“Funny story – my dad gave me the nickname when I played softball at about 7 or 8 years old,” she said. I originally had the nickname ‘Freight Train,’ but I didn’t like that my dad called me a train. So I asked him to change it.” Damon Handley did just that. “Nine years later, and I still have the same nickname,” Hadley said.
Shortly after getting the name, she traded the softball field for a racetrack, with her father as her first guide. Once behind the wheel, she was hooked. Under her father’s tutelage, she took her first green flag at nine years old at Driven Raceway, a Fairfield indoor karting track where she racked up 104 victories in 107 races—a 99.98 winning percentage.
Six months later, Hadley began Simraceway’s Jim Russell program at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma County, and began driving kart races in Dixon, Davis, Stockton, Fresno, Reno and other tracks. Often driving two different types of cars in different classes, she frequently went home with two separate trophies.
With Joy giving her further direction, Hadley won two Gold Rush Series, two Race of Champions Championships and two second place positions for Race of the Championship. At KPX Karting level, she was first in the championship her first year and second in another.
She’s been marketed by Mazda Motorsports in Racer and SCCA monthly magazines, and spoke at the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Runoffs at Laguna Seca. Of her accolades, she’s proudest of being the first female driver to capture the Silver State Winter Series Championship in Legends Car and winning one championship and finishing second in another during her first season in Legend Cars.
But Hadley isn’t resting on her laurels. She is taking aim on the Legend Cars Semi-Pro division world championship.
Hadley, the first in her family to race, said she admires such women drivers as former IndyCar and NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and Janet Guthrie, the first woman to enter both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. “The most important part about getting girls into the sport is helping them realize that we’re at this point in history where girls can be accepted and supported for joining almost any sport they want,” she said. “Soon enough, racing will be just like any other, and women will no longer be in a ‘male dominated’ sport.” Instead, she said, it will just be “a sport.”
Her inspiration, though, is the late Brazilian driver Ayerton Senna da Silva, the Formula One world champion in 1988, 1990 and 1991, who’s considered the best Formula One driver of all time. He died in the 1994 San Marina Grand Prix.
Why Senna? “Simply because of his incredible talent,” she said. “But also his dedication and drive. He started with not much and worked his way to the top, just like I plan to do.”