Cerebral Palsy—it can’t be cured. It’s a congenital brain disorder that affects movement, muscle tone or posture. And it could mean a lot of things: difficulty walking, muscle rigidity or weakness, overactive reflexes, involuntary movements, partial paralysis.
For Nicolas Hamilton, who was told he’d never walk after he was born two months prematurely with a lack of oxygen to the right side of his brain, living with Spastic Diplegia—just one type of Cerebral Palsy—means that his legs and feet muscles can be spastic and stiff. But it hasn’t stopped him from living out his dream. Nic made the heroic transition from his wheelchair to the cockpit of a race car after spending ample time developing his abilities on a simulator. He became so good at gaming that he was soon winning Esports championships and gaining huge notoriety in the online racing community before his skills eventually transitioned into the real world of motorsports.
Today, at 24, he’s raced in the 2011 Renault Sport Clio Cup and in 2015 secured a deal with AmD Tuning to race an Audi S3 in five rounds of the British Touring Car Championship as the first driver with a disability to compete in the series. He also still works on Project CARS and gaming company Slightly Mad Studios. We tracked him down to chat about how sim-gaming helped him catch up to his older brother, three-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton, his training regimen and his new documentary, Inspired to Drive.
“You’re always going to have struggles and get knocked back and fall over and have to get back up again and go again. You have to keep pushing, keep fighting. Sometimes it works out, and if it works out, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not meant to be and you go and you find something else.”
When did you get into racing?
I started simming when I was about 14, and then I didn’t get into a corporate indoor go-kart until I was about 15. Then, my first race—professional and in real life—was when I was 19… I was massively into gaming. I loved playing console games and PC games and pretty much any type of game… And obviously, with my brother at the time, we were always going to different races during his career, so I got massively into motorsports. I was pretty much born at a race track. Everything I knew, I sort of ate, slept and breathed motorsports. It got to the point where my dad was like, Nic, ‘Start reading a book. Do some studying.’
Tell us about when you stepped into your first race when you were 19.
I was in the Clio Cup and the crazy thing is that four months before that race, I was just a sim-gamer just racing online and using buttons on a steering wheel, and I wasn’t able to use my legs. I was really slow in terms of reaction times. In motorsport, a tenth of a second is everything… When I got to driving a car for real, my legs were really weak to start with. I had no way of hitting the brake pedal with good efficiency. In motorsport, braking is pretty much everything—all of your time can be found and lost in the braking. And you have to be able to push a good weight when you hit the pedal—70, 80 kilos worth of pressure. I could only hit 20 when I first started, so I was struggling quite a bit. For my first race, I got from 20 kilos to 130 kilos on my left leg, so it was pretty crazy. I’d never driven anything in the professional league; I went straight into the Clio Cup. I only had like two days in the car before, so I pretty much was thrown into the deep-end.
Were you terrified or super stoked? Or both?
The 2011 season was such a blur for me because it was my first championship. It was the start to my racing career that I never thought would exist or would ever happen. So for my first race, I was so focused on being able to just drive the car because at that time I hadn’t had a lot of experience at all—two days in the car before the first race. A lot of my thoughts were all down to just driving the car and not about the race. Then as time develops, you start thinking about racing and putting yourself in the right positions and overtaking people and stuff.
How do you train your body to get to the point where you can reach full throttle if you’re not inherently able to do it? What’s your training process?
I have a personal trainer who specializes in general training but also Cerebral Palsy and physiology that goes into it. No one with my condition is doing what I do. I’m always racing against able-bodied people, so I always have to train like able-bodied individuals. The way you know is by driving the car to start with and then seeing what you struggle with. When I was driving I noticed my legs were starting to fatigue, or I was struggling with braking, or my back felt quite achey or weak. Then you go back to the gym and you focus on the muscles that were weak in the car… It’s all just trial and error. Right now, I’m at a level where I don’t fatigue at all. My legs feel great.
Do you work out every day?
I train five times a week, which is enough. But I’ve got to be careful because it can have more of an effect on my body than anybody else. A lot of my training involves swimming, because it’s weightless and it doesn’t affect your joints. And then the other half is muscle strength and build-up, and just maintaining it.
What did you take away from your gaming experience that may have prepared you in real life?
I have to tell you that I learned pretty much everything that I need to know or that I already knew going into a real race car. Having watched Lewis for so long [see photo below], all I knew was how to watch and spectate. I was always looking at his driving style and how he did certain things, but I didn’t really know how to do that myself. So gaming sort of teaches you the pure basics of motorsport—how to brake, accelerate, where to turn, the apexes, as well as the car setup and the engineering side of it. It’s only when you get to driving the car for real, then you realize that there are a few fundamental things that the gaming doesn’t teach you, which is stuff like track temperatures, warming your tires, all of that sort of stuff.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you?
Talking to you now and being able to say I’m a professional race car driver, having my condition and doing what I do, and being competitive within my sport regardless of my condition against able-bodied people, is probably one of the biggest rewards… In terms of others, it would be inspiring people and realizing how many people I can reach out to and how many people are inspired by my story and what I’ve done. When you’re 19, you think you’re mature and you think you’ve done it. When I was 19, I always just wanted to race. That’s what I wanted to do. Everything was about me, me, me. Then when I started to mature and realized how many people I was inspiring—not just disabled people, but also able-bodied people—it made me realize that it’s not all about me racing. The whole point of me racing is to reach out and inspire others to set goals and strive for their dreams. That has got to be the most rewarding part—the amount of fans and people behind me I have worldwide.
What sort of advice would you give to another kid growing up in the same boat as you?
Cerebral Palsy can affect so many different people in so many different ways. You might not be able to walk, talk, eat or anything. So it’s hard for me to say that if you’ve got Cerebral Palsy you can still do whatever you want, because there a lot of people who don’t have the movement that I have, the strength that I have. That main thing I would say: Regardless of where you are, your condition, what it gives you, you’ll always be surprised by what you can achieve with what you already have. For me, I was born with my condition and never knew what would be possible until I gave it a go. So my advice would be that regardless of where you are, you’ve always got to give something a go. You’re always going to have struggles and get knocked back and fall over and have to get back up again and go again. You have to keep pushing, keep fighting. Sometimes it works out, and if it works out, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not meant to be and you go and you find something else. The main part is to be realistic, as well. Set realistic targets.
Can you tell me a bit about the documentary, Inspired to Drive?
The film is a mixture of my life, where I came from, what I do now, but also with sim-gaming in there. I helped develop Project CARS for the last four years and I now work for a gaming company, which is pretty crazy.
What are we going to see next from you?
Take away the sporting side, I want to start my own business and be successful in that way, if I can. In this day and age, you always want to try and keep yourself grounded and secure moving forward. In terms of the sporting side, I’m trying to see if I can set myself goals in different areas of sport. For example, what about stuff life riding a bike or riding a motocross bike? I actually physically can’t ride a pushbike without stabilizers or anything like that. But it’s all about taking on goals that I never thought I’d be able to do but then actually achieve.
Photo Credit: Monster Energy/Dan Fegent Photography