Change (gears)

I asked my best friend Dave, a big Formula One racing fan, the other day, “Have we talked about how Lewis Hamilton looks like Barack Obama?”

Image: (via BrandDunk)

Hamilton, last year’s rookie sensation in Formula One, came within two points of winning the drivers’ championship as #2 driver for the McLaren Mercedes team. Barack Obama, of course, needs no introduction…unless your name is Earl Simmons.

Hamilton is the first black driver to compete in Formula One. (In 1986, Willy T. Ribbs tested F1 cars for the Brabham team but did not race.) Obama, of course, is the first black presumptive nominee for president of a major American political party. But the more I think about it, the similarities are more than skin-deep. “Shared destiny” is too strong a phrase, but they seem to share some strange parallel trajectory. I’m not sure what the significance of this is, but here is some food for thought:

Both were born to a black father and white mother. Both sets of parents separated/divorced when each boy was two years old. Both grew up under modest circumstances – Hamilton’s father Anthony sometimes worked three jobs to support his early go-kart racing career, Obama grew up in Hawai’i and Indonesia. Both have enjoyed success and prestige at an early age – Hamilton broke numerous F1 rookie records last year at the age of 22, while Obama began his career as an elected official at the age of 35. (Aside: the boyhood skills and success of Hamilton as a teenager and even younger is a key point in the other comparison that is commonly made: Hamilton as the Tiger Woods of racing.)

Their shared trajectory even has virtually the same timetable, as least this year: the last day of the 2008 F1 season is November 2 (Brazilian Grand Prix), two days later is Election Day. And as the calendar turns to August, Hamilton leads the drivers’ championship standings by 4 points, while Obama leads John McCain by 3 percentage points according to

While  F1 and leadership of the free world is not an apples-to-apples case, that notion that we could have the first black Formula One champion and the first black president within 72 hours makes me ponder the larger significance, is there is one.

All of these thoughts were bouncing around my brain when I opened last weekend’s The New York Times Magazine to find a profile on Hamilton by Cathy Horyn (the Times fashion critic). I was hoping to find some insight into what significance this Hamilton/Obama trajectory has, if there is any. But the article makes only a short mention of how Hamilton’s transcendent appeal is like Obama’s, and only near the end:

Out on the terrace, I met Mario Theissen, head of the BMW Sauber team. BMW has been quite a contender this season. I told Theissen I was writing a profile of Hamilton, and he listened with interest as I said I thought Hamilton’s appeal seemed to transcend the sport.

“Like Obama,” Theissen said.

I had heard others say this, so I wasn’t surprised. But I was pleased that Theissen had made the connection. Like Barack Obama, another break-through figure, Hamilton had come to the race perfectly prepared for it. “Better than any other newcomer, and also better than some established drivers who didn’t consider him to be a real challenger initially,” Theissen wrote to me later in an e-mail message.

Later in the article, Horyn explains that the McLaren team always tried to play down Hamilton’s color, but after seeing thousands of young people waiting outside of Hamilton’s hotel in Indiana (after the 2007 U.S. Grand Prix, which he won), that was when McLaren first realized the scope of Hamilton’s appeal, and maybe yes, it had something to do with his color.

Race cars without race cards

While the article dealt mostly with Hamilton’s backstory and whether he could “hang on to his innocence in the revved-up whirl of grand prix,” I would like to see the future article that takes more time to delve into the similarity of Hamilton’s and Obama’s appeal. Is Hamilton’s appeal purely his race/color, or is it more than that? A young, good-looking, very successful pro athlete is like Appeal City. Or are we just over the  race/color discussion?

See also:

Channel 4’s Rags Martel asks Hamilton about Obama
Bleacher Report’s Alex Levy on the Hamilton-Obama comparison
Obama camp decides not sponsor NASCAR ride


1 Response to “Change (gears)”

  1. 1 The Dating Guru August 6, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Wow — he really DOES look like Obama!

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