Driving ambition

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Undeterred by his cerebral palsy, Lewis Hamilton’s younger brother has embarked on his own racing career. SEN’s Peter Sutcliffe talks to Nic Hamilton

As the brother of one of the best known and highest paid sports stars in the world, Nic Hamilton seems unfazed by the huge amount of attention his own exploits behind the wheel have attracted. Three months into his debut season as a driver, and in the full glare of the media spotlight, he has already clocked up some impressive times, ridden his luck through occasional sticky patches, and emerged with a sideline job as a TV pundit. However, living with a famous name and risking life and limb on the track are not the first great challenges this laid back nineteen-year-old has had to face.

Nic has spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. While the condition does not affect him mentally, it does take its toll on his body. “My legs are affected in terms of movement”, says Nic. “I can’t walk for long distances, and the weaker side of my body is quite a lot weaker than an able bodied person’s would be. I tend to scrape my feet a lot as it’s difficult to pick them up. So, obviously, it takes a lot of energy to walk for any length of time and I do get fatigued easily.

“When I was about three, I started using a frame to walk with. After that, when I got my own balance for walking, I learned to use my legs on their own. Then I got some splints that go on to my legs at night to keep them nice and supple. That’s the main problem; if you don’t keep your legs active and you don’t keep them stretched, they tighten up just as quickly as you can loosen them. When I was younger, doing my stretches was a chore, so the splints were really good.”

Today, Nic sees a physiotherapist every two weeks to work on his body. “We do stretches and different exercises to build the legs up”, he says. I have a lot of muscle on my torso, but not a lot on my legs and, because I’m racing this year, I have to really work hard in the gym to try and make them stronger. Walking is also one of the best things I can do to build my legs up on their own.”

As a young child, Nic attended the local village primary school. It was small, and Nic was able to manage relatively easily. At secondary school, though, things became a good deal harder. “It was a much bigger school; I was walking around with heavy bags and it really took it out on my legs”, says Nic. “So, I started using a wheelchair every day for about three years, and I used it when I went to F1 (Formula 1) races as well. It caused a problem because my legs weren’t getting any exercise at all, and they got weaker. It was only when I was a little older that I realised that I needed to start getting out of the wheelchair and stop being lazy and build the legs up properly.”

At school, Nic was keen to ensure that his CP did not mark him out as different from the other children, and his classmates seem to have respected his approach. As Nic explains, “If I showed them my attitude, the way I perceive my disability and the way I get on with life, they changed and realised that ‘he is just one of us’. I’m a very confident person in terms of meeting and speaking to people. I think when I first started at school, I basically said: ‘Hi, my name’s Nic. I’ve got a disability; like it or lump it. I don’t see it as a problem, so you have to deal with it.’ It was their problem if they saw it as a problem. So people never really stared at me at school because they knew what the situation was, and that’s the way I liked it.”

Away from school, Nic was already sharing in the family passion for motor racing. His brother, Lewis, was racing most weekends, and the whole family would venture out for race meetings. “We were all in it together”, says Nic. “Through all the ups and downs, it was a complete family affair. Whatever was happening with the racing or whatever bad times I was going through with CP and my legs, the family was always there.

“Lewis wasn’t a star at the time; he was just my brother, and we were just a normal, average family. So everything was simple. It wasn’t until Lewis got a lot better and started racing Formula 3, then Formula 1, that he really started getting known.”

Throughout Nic’s childhood, though, Lewis was clearly a big influence on his little brother. “I looked up to Lewis a lot, because he wanted me to be strong and, particularly with CP, it’s quite difficult to be strong,” says Nic. “I wore the same clothes as him and listened to the same music. I didn’t so much copy him as follow his lead, but then I did it in my own way. He has been a massive inspiration throughout my life, though, and I reckon he’s the one that made me really strong.”

Nic’s own interest in being a driver developed relatively late, at the age of 17. “I started driving online simulation games”, he says. “I got really good at it and I ended up winning the British Championship for online simulation. Then Lewis said, ‘you’re good; you should try and do it in real life’. At this time I wasn’t even driving a road car, and when I did online simulation, I used buttons instead of pedals. So I said to him, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to do it because I’d have to use pedals’, but he just said: ‘you need to try it’.

“So then I got my first road car. Originally, my dad was very against me driving or racing because I don’t think he wanted to go through it all again, but in September 2010 I drove a car on a track for the first time. I think dad thought that it was just going to be a little bit of fun, and that I would just try and pootle around, but I ended up blowing it away. I was a second faster than the instructors and my dad was taken aback.”

In February 2011, Nic signed up to drive with team Total Control Racing, and just two months later he was taking part in his first race in the AirAsia Renault Clio Cup UK. The team needed to make a few modifications to the car to accommodate Nic’s disability. “They made two seat brackets which lift the seat up 100 mm, because I got in and I couldn’t see anything”, says Nic. “We also installed some special pedals – an extra wide brake pedal and a thicker accelerator pedal – and a hand clutch, instead of a foot clutch. The car is quite easy to drive now and I’m not at any disadvantage.”

Lewis took time out from his preparations for the Malaysian Grand Prix and flew half way across the world to be at Nic’s first race, at Brands Hatch, and he continues to provide support when needed. “I try and get as much advice from him as possible”, says Nic, “but I like to follow my team and there are certain things Lewis can’t help me with. But if there is anything I need, I just ask him.”

Six races into his driving career, Nic says he is “loving it”, and he seems to handle the pressure of hurtling around a track at breakneck speed with characteristic calm. “I’m very laid back”, he says, “so I don’t go around thinking it’s such a great adrenalin buzz. While I’m doing it, all I’m thinking about is how to get faster. It’s crazy, though, because I was always a wuss when I was younger. I never wanted to race; I was always scared of speed, and here I am today doing 130 miles an hour.”

As for the future, Nic is taking things one step at a time. “My main goal is to make DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters), the Formula 1 of touring cars”, he says. “But I’m only a few months into my racing career, so we’ll just see how it goes and take every race as it comes.”
Growing up and living with cerebral palsy has clearly challenged Nic, but does he think that CP has been a barrier to him achieving his goals? “No, not at all”, he says. “It has made it more difficult, but no matter how big the barrier, if you really want something, you’ll push to make sure you get over it. That’s what I’ve done so far, but I’ve still got a long way to go.”

While the glamour of his superstar brother may have been a major draw for the media initially, it is Nic’s own story that has proved to be of lasting interest to many, and he is happy to think that his experiences might have helped to inspire or motivate others. “Obviously, my plan wasn’t to go out and inspire people; my plan was to get on with things”, he says. “But if I’ve inspired people along the way, that’s great. I like the fact that, when I go to races now, there are a lot of disabled people around my garage. It gives me a massive boost. And I think it’s great if I’ve helped to bring them to motor sport.”

Nic’s positive approach to life seems to have served him well so far, and his advice to others growing up with disabilities like CP is suitably up-beat: “Be yourself and never be embarrassed by the disability you have”, he says. “It’s more of an advantage that you have it than a disadvantage. It makes you unique and different to other people, and you just have to try and overcome it as best you can. You have to have the right mentality and the right support, but if you want to do crazy stuff, then just do it.”

Further information

Information about Nic Hamilton’s racing career and the AirAsia Renault Clio Cup UK can be found at:
www.totalcontrolracing.com

This article was first published in issue 53 (July/August 2011) of SEN Magazine.

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