CONCORD, N.C. — Laird Hamilton is a champion surfer, and like fellow celebrity racer John Elway, his competitive side jumped at the chance to hop into the Cars.com car on a NASCAR track.
“To be taught by racecar drivers, yeah, that was like a no-brainer,” Hamilton said. “I’ve always said, if you ever want to be good at anything, see the best people in world that are doing it and learn from them.
”It’ll save you a lot of time.”
It's that same competitive drive that compelled him to be one of the first celebrities to go on a ride-along.
“I told Serena [Williams], it’s like a high-diving board,” Hamilton said. “When you stand there and look down too long, you probably won’t want to go because your brain will go, ‘Well, you shouldn’t go, and if you go, you might …’
“The longer you wait, the harder it is. So just get me in a car. Let me do the lap,” he said. “Now I know what to expect, I know the feeling, and that just kind of brings a calmness about it. It’ll make me calm, and I can probably go eat now and feel good about it.”
Like Elway, removed from the environment where he set the bar, racecar driving required Hamilton to take stock of what was going on around him. And what was going on around Hamilton was very different from what he’s used to. For one, when he’s surfing, there’s not a lot of equipment (or clothing) involved. So, what was the biggest difference?
“The noise,” he said. “This is manmade stuff. And you’re in a lot of equipment. I’m used to being naked, almost [when surfing]. So now I’ve got belts, and you’ve got straps, and you’re held in there, so that’s constricting. … For me, I was just trying to remember to breathe and just be relaxed and not create tension.”
Still, driving of any kind is not new for a guy who grew up in Hawaii. His first car was a VW, but he was driving trucks before anything else.
“I grew up in trucks: Ford, Chevys, pickups,” he said. “Where I grew up was kind of like a farming, fishing community. When we were young, before you got strong enough to be helpful, you would drive. A 9-year-old that knows how to drive can drive a car well enough to be helpful. And when you’re in a situation where you can’t dig a hole, or can’t do the manual part because you’re not physically strong enough, you can drive.”
You can see Hamilton on the Cars.com sponsored "Fast Cars & Superstars — Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race" beginning June 7 on ABC.
Drive he did, from farm equipment to dune buggies. “We did a lot of hot-rodding when we were kids, because there were no police. We could just ’Raarrr.’ ”
Now he’s older and his cars have changed, but they’re still not what most people drive.
“I have a bunch of different military vehicles at home,” Hamilton said. “I have the Deuce-and-a-half, Gamma goats. I’ve driven a lot of different options, from tractors to everything.”
Still, every man eventually has to go get the groceries, so there are also more pedestrian trucks from Ford, Chevy and Hummer at Hamilton’s house, so he doesn’t have to invade his town to pick up bread and milk.
Given his wide experience with vehicles of all stripes, signing up for a NASCAR-style celebrity event must have been a no-brainer.
“Well, everybody drives,” he said. “We’re a driving world. Used to be horses, but now it’s cars. I mean, that’s how we do what we do. That’s why racing, I think, is so popular. I think that’s why people are so attracted and identify with it. ‘Oh, I drive,’ and that’s why they all think they’re experts, too.
“This is not driving on the freeway, this is driving on the racetrack in a car that’s designed to go 100, 200 mph, so it’s a whole different animal.”