Heather “The Heat” Hadley got her nickname years ago by her father while playing softball, but it’s on the racetrack where the 17-year-old has truly been on fire lately.

In February, the Vallejo native won the Silver State Winter Series Semi-Pro top honor in Las Vegas with four wins to become the Legends Car Champion. She is the first female to win a championship in Legend’s and did so in her debut in the semi-pro division, as she also won the Rookie of the Year award.

“I found out that I could be the first woman to win about halfway through the series, maybe four races in,” Hadley said. “I was freaking out after that. It was definitely a great feeling to win, as it was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done in racing. It took me a little while to understand what I did though. I guess I didn’t really realize the effects until soon after when I started getting noticed more by people in upper levels of racing. If you would have told me a year ago this would all happen to me, I wouldn’t believe it.”

In 2016, Vallejo native Heather Hadley decided to make one of the biggest leaps in her career, going from karts to cars. (Contributed photo)

Hadley, who grew up in Vallejo and lives here on the weekends, goes to Tamiscal High in Larkspur. However, she has been a huge fan of racing nearly her whole life. Hadley began go-kart racing at an indoor facility called Driven Raceway in Fairfield. She soon traveled to such locations as Sonoma, Dixon, Davis, Stockton, Fresno and Reno. In 2014 she simultaneously competed in two kart classes, comer and clone. With two championships under her belt, Mazda began marketing her as well.

In 2016 Hadley finished first in the Race of Champions. In October of that year Hadley decided to make one of the biggest leaps in her career, going from karts to cars. It wasn’t an easy transition.

“It started to get real serious around that time,” Hadley said. “I got a car but it was super difficult because I had to learn how to shift, and that’s not the easiest thing. I was running circle tracks and road track configurations, going back and forth trying to get the hang out of it. I’d say it took me at least a year to get comfortable.”

In 2017 and 2018 Hadley competed on a number of tracks, including Sonoma Raceway, Madera Speedway and Stockton 99. At the end of last year she also met her current coach and mechanic, Robert Gayton.

“Everything changed when I met Robert Gayton,” Hadley said. “I got into a new car, not an actual new car, but a new car for me and I was able to get comfortable in it and right away focus on the driving aspect. I was able to pick up everything (Gayton) was saying and improve a ton … I felt like I was welcomed into the Robert Gayton Racing (RGR) team right away and that was very awesome. I was not treated differently because of my gender.”

Although Hadley admitted that she competes in a male-dominated sport, she does feel like women are making a difference each and every year and she feels great to be part of that.

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Hadley said when asked if she’s treated differently in the sport because she’s a woman or because she’s just been winning a lot lately. “I get treated more normally off the track then on it. On the track you can see the tension a little more. Kids my age racing tend to have a little bit of a problem racing against a woman sometimes. I just want to be an aggressive racer like everyone else.”

Hadley has played other sports in her life, including softball, where she got her nickname by playing a bunch of infield positions such as second base. But it’s racing that’s always completed her and given her a little bit of peace.

“Racing is my life,” Hadley said. “Although I liked other sports, in racing I liked that it’s just me and my car, and nobody is telling me what to do. It’s the one time in a week or a day where I can be myself, just listen to myself and not be swayed by anyone else. I can just chill out and focus on breathing and racing.”

Hadley will be competing in the Nasa Racing Series at Sonoma Raceway on March 16 and 17.

Vallejo Times Herald - Thomas Gase - March 8, 2019