Formula 1 Driver Lewis Hamilton Says He Owes His Success to His Dad: 'He's the Real Hero'
"My dad, he never went out. He never had new clothes. He wasn't saving up to buy anything new. Everything — remortgaging the house multiple times — went into go-karting, which sounds crazy. It is crazy, but he believed so much in me," Lewis Hamilton tells PEOPLE
Lewis Hamilton's racing dream has become a reality — but the success is not his alone.
The 35-year-old British Formula 1 driver made history earlier this month when he clinched the 2020 F1 Championship with his victory at the Turkish Grand Prix, tying racing legend Michael Schumacher for the most championships ever, with seven total.
Lewis has now won 94 races in his career. He previously beat Schumacher's record of 91 career wins last month at the Portuguese Grand Prix.
In that moment of victory in Istanbul, Lewis tells PEOPLE his mind drifted back to his humble beginnings, and the support and unwavering dedication of his father Anthony Hamilton.
"I came across the line, and all the things about me and my dad — when we went away from our first championship singing 'We Are the Champions,' the struggles that we had — it just flashed through my mind, and all this emotion came up," Lewis reflects. "There were times where we didn't think we were going to be there. We were not going to make it. ... They were worrying times, but he never doubted me once."
He adds, "I felt proud that hopefully he's watching and is like, 'It was worth it.' "
Lewis grew up outside of London, splitting time between his parents — Anthony and mom Carmen Larbalestier — who broke up when he was only two. Most weekends were spent with Anthony, who "didn't know what to do with this little energized kid running around."
Soon, a love of cars become obvious as the father-son duo watched Grand Prix races. Lewis first drove a go-kart at age five while on a family vacation. By age eight, he had his own go-kart.
"You could say from five I already knew that I wanted to be a Formula 1 driver, basically," he says.
His first British karting championship came in 1995 when Lewis was only 10. It had become more obvious, then, that he was competing against other young racers from families with more means for supplies and training.
"We have a racing award called the Autosport Awards at the end of the year," explains Lewis. "We couldn't afford a suit for me, so I borrowed the suit from the kid that won the previous year."
Racing is, of no surprise, an expensive sport, and Lewis grew up living in British public housing. To afford much of what was needed for Lewis to be competitive, Anthony — who eventually started his own IT company — at first worked three jobs and even re-mortgaged their home.
It was also hard for Lewis and his father to ignore the lack of diversity in the sport.
"When we arrived on the go-kart track, we were the only Black family there. We've always been the only Black family there," he tells PEOPLE "There was a lot thrown at us in those early years. I always relate it to Cool Runnings, my favorite movie, because when they get to the top of the hill for the first time, they have this rusty sled. That was my go-kart."
He continues, "It was owned by five different families. It was bent and buckled, and it didn't look like much, but I loved it. [Anthony] went to a DIY store, and he made it look as brand new as he could."
Others also noticed that the Hamiltons were the only Black family at races, with Lewis saying that he frequently was at the receiving end of racist comments and behaviors.
"We had things thrown at us, particularly a lot of words, but my dad said, 'Do your talking on the track,' because I'm a fighter," Lewis reflects. "I got bullied at school, so I always wanted to be able to defend myself, or fight back, but my dad's like, 'Do your talking on the track.' "
And he did.
In addition to his mounting accomplishments in racing, media reports say Lewis will likely soon be knighted by the queen.
"People see me winning these championships but I think the important story really is that father-son, or son of a parent, story which so many people across the world, in America and the U.K., can relate to, because we did it as a family," Lewis tells PEOPLE. "I think probably every parent wants the best for their kids. My dad, he never went out. He never had new clothes. He wasn't saving up to buy anything new. Everything — remortgaging the house multiple times — went into go-karting, which sounds crazy. It is crazy, but he believed so much in me."
He says, "He's the real hero, but obviously I'm the one that gets to stand on top of the podium at the end."
Years later, Lewis is still the only Black driver in Formula 1 and has continually used his position to raise awareness for social issues, such as when he took a knee with other drivers before the Austrian Grand Prix in July and when he wore a shirt that read, "Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor" before another race.
Despite his own experiences, Lewis admits that he feels he often "suppressed" his emotions about racial injustices until earlier this year when George Floyd was killed while in police custody.
"I was like, 'I've got to speak out for the kids,' because my niece and nephew are biracial," he says. "I've got cousins, friends who I know — pretty much every Black kid around the world will at some stage in their life experience racism. That's just how it is kind of thing. I was like, 'I've got to use this platform.' "
There's more to come from Lewis, who assures he'll continue to use his platform to hopefully encourage, among other things, more diversity in his own sport — which plans to be in for a while to come.
"I still feel young and energized," the driver tells PEOPLE, squashing any imminent retirement speculation. "I don't feel I'm finished. I feel like I'm getting better, so I'm going to keep racing for a bit, I think. I know the goal has always been this. In doing what I'm doing, if one young kid sees me doing it and doing it well — and realizing that I started in the same humble beginnings as them — maybe by seeing me, hopefully, that encourages them."
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