Motor Trends Interview with Laird Hamilton

Posted: Dec 05 2012

|Laird Hamilton, Surfer/Author/Model Celebrity Drive
Big Wave Surfing Legend Talks Life and Cars
By K.S. Wang | December 14, 2012  |

Quick Stats: Laird Hamilton, surfer, author, model
Daily Driver: 2009 Hummer H2 (Laird’s rating: 9 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Favorite road trip: France to India on the Khyber Pass
Car he learned to drive in: 1972 VW Beetle
First car bought: 1972 VW Beetle

As one of the greatest big wave surfers on the planet, Laird Hamilton has traversed 70-foot walls of water. He’s in a small fraternity of people who experience the ocean in a way the rest of us never will.

That view of the world, coupled with a childhood spent living off the land in Hawaii, has given Hamilton a practical and deeply introspective approach to life — something you might not expect from someone who was once included in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.

His contemplative side extends to how he thinks about what cars he drives. Hamilton spoke to Motor Trend at length about his take on life and cars, and his surprising philosophy on cars is almost existential in nature.

When Hamilton is in Malibu, California, he drives a 2009 Hummer H2, which he sees as a utilitarian vehicle. “I’m normally in four-wheel-drive vehicles,” Hamilton says. “It’s been modified, so it’s got a whole different suspension and lifted up with giant tires and winches and fuel tanks and a spare tire in the back.”

Hamilton gives the H2 a 9 rating because it does the job to haul the gear he needs to go surfing. “You’re pulling trailers; you go places where cars can’t go; you’ve got to go over stuff; you’ve got to help somebody pull their stuff out,” he says. “It’s a safe vehicle to put my kids in and be on dangerous roads. I don’t drive far, so I don’t need huge economy and I’m not on a regular commute for mile and miles, so I’m not looking for economic, fuel-efficient vehicles. I’m looking for things that can pull and drag and go up hills and over rocks and do things that I need.”

Despite being able to afford any supercar, Hamilton calls himself the “anti-bling guy,” so when he got the H2, he spray painted it, including the chrome. “As soon as I got it, I took it and sprayed it flat black. I don’t want shiny. I don’t want chrome. I want it to be the least obtrusive,” he says.

Hamilton also wants a car that is sturdy enough to get him out of any situation. “I want to drive the vehicle I need on the last day of the earth,” he laughs. “What vehicle are you going to use when you have an earthquake and all the freeways crack open and then you’re like, ‘Holy shit. Where am I going to take my car that has a 2-inch ground clearance!'”

Hamilton also loves trucks and he has a couple Ford F-250s at his Hawaii home. He also owns military vehicles including some giant deuce-and-a-halfs and an amphibious Gama Goat. He’s been hankering to buy a truck for when he’s at his Malibu house because he misses having one around.

2010 Ford F-250 Super Duty
Rating: 8
While Hamilton loves this four-door turbo diesel F-250, his wife, professional volleyball player Gabby Reece, mostly drives this truck. “My wife usually takes it over and I don’t get to run it. I’ve got a king cab, longbed F-250 that I run,” he says. He says the only negative about this diesel F-250 is that in Hawaii, diesel isn’t available at every gas station and it’s more expensive.

“That particular truck, you wouldn’t know it’s a diesel,” he says. “There’s no delay; it’s got a lot of power and moves quickly. Sometimes I’m pulling big boats, heavy trailers and dump trailers, and you can’t beat the torque of a diesel.” He says a similar gas-powered vehicle would need more fuel to give as much power. “So with better fuel efficiency you get greater torque and power and mileage, even though the fuel is more expensive,” he says.

Hamilton has strong opinions about diesel, which he thinks shouldn’t be more costly than gasoline. “It shouldn’t be, because it’s a less-processed fuel than gasoline. It’s just that on the world economy, diesel is a lot more sought after because every tractor in the world is using it, so any developing nation like China, you’re having to compete directly with them, so it’s easier to charge more for it here and sell them more of it,” he says.

2005 Ford F-250 Super Duty Crew Cab King Ranch
Rating: 8
“I always have had trucks, either Chevy 2500’s or F-250’s,” Hamilton says. “For me, without having a truck I feel naked and to have a truck that’s not four-wheel drive, is not a truck. Most of my vehicle orientation is based around the utilitarian, things that you could carry stuff with and haul, put a lot of gear in. Things that you can beat up that are designed for that.”

Car he learned to drive in
Where Hamilton grew up in Hawaii, the landlord had a pig farm and taro farm. While the farm-to-table lifestyle is trendy among today’s foodies, Hamilton lived when it wasn’t in fashion.

“I grew up killing pigs and feeding pigs and fishing, when I was a kid,” he says. “You’d think I’m from southern California, but I grew up in a pretty remote place in Hawaii. That lifestyle doesn’t exist anymore, in Hawaii at least.
Maybe in some Third World countries they still have some aspects of it. We lived more by the land. Most of the food on the table came from harvesting of the land, either growing it, farming it, catching it.”

He says being connected to the land helped shape his view on life. “People think of me as a surfer guy, but I still grew up on a pig farm and grew up fishing and pulling taro and driving trucks when I was 9 or 10 years old,” he says.

He used to go to restaurants to collect slop in the morning and cook it to feed the pigs.
Hamilton says everyone should experience seeing their food killed at least once, to understand where it comes from. “Steak doesn’t come in a package prewrapped in the meat department,” he says. “It’s an animal that had to give its life, and it’s important for every kid to be exposed to that experience. It definitely changes you. You realize that it’s something sacred in that it had to give its life for you to eat it and it’s just not this stuff that is chopped up, that’s red that you cook and tastes good.”

His upbringing shaped his feelings about cars. “I think you have a different value system, and that’s probably why I look at cars the way I do,” Hamilton reflects. “I see all these fancy cars and I’m like, ‘What are they really for?’ At the end of the day, if I’m going to be in traffic, I like being high up anyway. I can see more; it’s safer. Why have a car that can go 150 mph when the speed limit is 50? If I want to go fast, I’ll go to a track where they’ll rent you a car where you can go 150.”

As a young child, Hamilton was expected to help out on the farm. “We fished and so we had trailers and boats on the beach and trucks on the farm,” he says. “So it’s always about vehicles and work.”

He learned to drive on farm trucks. “I could back trailers up when I was probably 9 or 10 years old,” he says. “You become effective in a vehicle when you’re young, and if you can be a 10-year-old boy and get in a truck and drive it around and help, you can do a lot. Where we lived, there’s no police and nobody on the road and the only thing you would crash into were some bushes. So we learned how to drive really super young.”

While the farm trucks all had stick shifts, Hamilton formally learned to drive on a red, manual 1972 Volkswagen Beetle, which he bought from his mom while in high school. “It was a beat-up one with rusted floor boards, but those things were bulletproof. It’s amazing what a Bug can endure,” he recalls.

His second or third car was a Honda Civic. “Those things were bulletproof too. The first Civics were Beetle-ish,” he says, adding he later bought a Peugeot.

Hamilton’s Car Philosophy
Despite his worldwide success and ability to treat himself to a fancy car, Hamilton never yearned for one of his own. But he has had lots of experience driving them.

“I was working with somebody that imported all these fancy cars, so we had Berlinetta Boxers, Silver Shadow II, 911S, so I spent a lot of time driving those cars when I first came to California,” Hamilton says. “I just don’t first of all care that much about a car to have it have that much meaning, like worrying about a door ding, or where I park it, or how people perceive me. I remember how girls would act all crazy because you drive a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari and you would be like, ‘What kind of girl is that? How great can that girl be if she likes me because of my car?'”

He was also exposed to expensive cars at an even younger age, back in Hawaii. “On the island where I grew up, Clark Gable’s stepson was heir to Spreckels Sugar Company, and he had all these Corvettes and El Caminos and fancy cars,” he says.

Bunker Spreckels would simply hand him the keys and let drive, even when Hamilton could barely see over the steering wheel.

“So I would take a brand-new fiberglass body Corvette and drive 100 mph down a sand road and spin them out,” Hamilton says. “For me, all those experiences around fancy cars maybe satisfied my curiosity and made me realize, ‘Hey, at the end of the day, really what are they for?’ OK, for going fast. And what happens when you go fast? You usually crash.”

There are also less practical uses for such cars, Hamilton says. “Like, ‘Where do I put my surfboard and where can I put my machines and where does the equipment go?’ The thing can’t get out of a mudhole and you can’t cross a river with them and you don’t drive them on the beach,” he says. “All these things that when I had a choice of what kind of vehicle I wanted, I was like ‘Well, do I want to waste money on something I barely want to drive and I don’t want anybody to park near me?’ As much as I appreciate a beautiful Ferrari, the lines and the sound and driving them, at the end, on the day in, day out thing, what is it for?”

Favorite road trip
When Hamilton was about to turn 11, he went on a road trip with his mom that changed his life. “I get goose bumps now — my mom’s since gone, but she took me when I was 11 years old on one of the single greatest road trips that you could go on that I know of,” Hamilton says. “We drove from Paris, France, to Bombay, India, for six weeks, and we went through the Khyber Pass and Istanbul, Iran, Iraq. We followed the old Silk Trail.”

The Khyber Pass, which connects Pakistan and Afghanistan, was part of the old Silk Road and is one of the oldest mountain passes around. “That had a huge impact on my life and that was the greatest road trip that I’ve ever been on,” he says. “We had one of those Chevy van campers, the ones that have a van front end with a camper that’s built over it.”

She had an opportunity to go on the trip and thought it would be a good education to take her son, so she took him out of school for six weeks.

“I remember the border in Afghanistan was just a pipe gate. You could have just driven around it. But that was the border and when we got there, it was shut. So we had to spend the night in some little building at the border of Afghanistan,” he recounts. “That was when I had my 11th birthday. I’ve been back to India after, and I go to France every year for the last more than 20 years.” and
With Hamilton’s website and the one he shares with his wife, they’ve created a powerhouse fitness brand that doesn’t just sell the equipment to live the life they live, but also offers ways to stay healthy the way they do. They recently launched a nutrition company, TRUition, which offers healthy recipes, articles, and the supplements they take. “The TRUition supplement line is based on supplements that we’ve used in our careers, that we believe in, and so we started producing our own products,” he says.

Laird StandUp
One of Hamilton’s big passions is standup paddleboarding, the fastest-growing board sport in the world. He says he was the first to try it years ago and he’s finally making stand-up paddleboards people can buy.

For those who say they don’t like the water, or could never surf, this sport offers a way to be part of that larger sport of surfing. “I have a lot of people that don’t even like to go in the water, they’re scared of it, and now all of sudden they’re standing up out of it, above it and they have a whole different perspective of water,” he says. “It’s really introducing a lot of people to having an experience in the water that wouldn’t normally do it, which at the end will result in more people being advocates of trying to protect the ocean and waterways because of their participation.”

Hamilton acknowledges the kind of surfing he’s known for is a very small part of a larger sport, giving the example of extreme BMX bikers doing flips on a halfpipe compared to just bicycling down the street.

“Surfing is one of a few sports that has such few participants, but such a great business because it’s around the lifestyle, and all standup represents is a way for a greater majority of people to experience surfing, to participate in the activity, instead of buying a shirt and clothes around the concept of the lifestyle.”

You don’t need to be on an ocean to standup paddleboard. “Surfing is a very low percentage of people, because you need to be in a place with waves; you need to have the athleticism to do it,” he says. “With standup, you can do it everywhere, and it’s an incredible fitness for cross training. You don’t need waves. In fact, a greater percentage of people doing it aren’t even riding waves, they’re either racing or paddling distance. For me, it allows me to do things that I haven’t done in surfing, so people say it’s easy. But if you saw what we do, maybe it’s not that easy. We’re trying to ride bigger and bigger waves; people are going down rivers and rapids on it.”

Hamilton says standup paddleboard may be the closest thing to what surfing originally was. “The industry of surfing has promoted this one style of surfing which is probably further away from the actual discipline of surfing that the ancient Hawaiians practiced, and I believe that standup is probably closer to that than what the surfing media, the magazines, the companies, everything that they promote is this one little discipline of surfing.”

Standup can also be a way to easily connect to nature. “The ocean is for everyone, and surfers would want to kill me for saying that, because it’s already too crowded at surf spots,” he says. “But it’s everybody’s human right to experience being in the ocean. Everybody is a water person. It’s all about your introduction. We’re made of water; we all gravitate towards it.”