INDIANAPOLIS — His first race suit was tiny, barely big enough to fit a doll. It was red, white and gold, a replica suit made for 2-month-old Davey Hamilton Jr. to match the one his dad was wearing as he ran the Indianapolis 500 that year.
Hamilton Jr. still has that suit from 1997, when his dad Davey Hamilton finished sixth at the Indy 500. It’s a reminder of the endless possibilities for his own racing career.
It’s bittersweet, too, a suit made for the kid with all that promise.
He was 4 years old when he began driving go-karts on the West Coast. It was the starting ground for getting into racing and Hamilton Jr. was good. He won his first race as a toddler and steadily climbed his way up in the racing world.
USAC Silver Crown series, Indy Lights. And the possibility of a real shot at his lifelong dream, racing the Indy 500.
But in 2019, Hamilton Jr. says, a five-year battle with mental illness abruptly ended his career and destroyed what he had built.
On a February night three years ago, Hamilton Jr. was charged with false imprisonment and aggravated assault on his ex-girlfriend when he took a knife to her West Palm Beach hotel room.
The mug shot that pops up every time someone Googles his name has haunted Hamilton Jr. The repercussions from the night Hamilton Jr. says he “lost it” have followed him. An ankle bracelet kept him a prisoner on house arrest for nearly three years.
But now, Hamilton Jr. is free. He did not receive jail time, but instead was sentenced to five years probation.
And now, he says he is fighting to show the world he is not the same person who went inside that Florida hotel room.
‘Lone man trying to rebuild my brand’
Hamilton Jr. says he is working to transform his life into what is a better version of a man — and driver — than he has ever been.
“Literally, there are so many people that believed in me,” Hamilton Jr. told IndyStar earlier this month. “That helped me through a lot of things.”
Hamilton Jr. wants people to know how sorry he is for “the incident” in 2019. He was in a dark place, he said. He was co-dependent on others. He was depressed and anxious, he said. He was sad. His life was spiraling out of control.
But not anymore, Hamilton Jr. says. He has gotten help for his mental health issues, he said. He is now the owner of a Tampa asphalt company.
He is a brand ambassador for Thin Energy Complete, a plant-based, no-caffeine energy drink. He is an ambassador, too, for the Brian Hamilton Foundation (no relation), which helps people overcome the stigma of a criminal background through entrepreneurship.
And, Hamilton Jr. has more than 60 races lined up for 2022 — 28 sprint car races, USAC Silver Crown Series and Stadium Super Trucks.
“I’m kind of a lone man trying to rebuild my brand,” said Hamilton Jr., 24. “Trying to fix it.”
In the past three years, he says, people closest to him have told Hamilton Jr. over and over: “You’re a really good kid. That wasn’t you.”
He says he knows they are right, but sometimes it’s been hard to come to terms with that.
“It sucks. I hate it every day,” he said. “I can’t dwell on it forever. Everybody makes mistakes. But to me, I’ve learned from it and I’m showing that. I am not that person anymore.”
Davey Hamilton: ‘I’m proud of him’
Davey Hamilton said his son suffered two severe concussions months before the incident with his ex-girlfriend. One happened at a race in California and the other in Las Vegas.
Hamilton Jr. was taken to the University of Miami Concussion Program — and evaluated by the same doctors many NFL players see, Davey Hamilton said.
Weeks later, Hamilton Jr. was suffering such severe headaches that he sat alone day and night in a dark condo in Indianapolis, his dad said. He couldn’t even turn on the television due to the brightness of the light.
Then, the breakup with his girlfriend came. Then the hotel room.
“This isn’t him,” Davey Hamilton remembers the doctor from Miami telling him after Hamilton Jr. was arrested. “This is not him.”
Davey Hamilton believes what happened with his son was a perfect storm that included the concussions, being young and those mental struggles Hamilton Jr. had faced. He said he thanks God no one was hurt that night in February 2019.
But every night after that, Davey Hamilton said, he went to sleep worrying. “DJ was down and out. I was scared to death about what the outcome was going to be,” Davey Hamilton said. “I didn’t want to get that call.” That call that his son had taken his own life.
Hamilton Jr. today isn’t close to the same person he was three years ago, his dad said.
“Him fighting to come back, I’m very proud of him,” Davey Hamilton said. “It can’t be easy. As hard as it is, he is taking the bull by the horns and really trying.”
‘We all deserve a second chance’
Those who know Hamilton say he is kind, humble, funny and has boundless energy. Those who have taken a chance on him, nearly three years after his arrest, say they have no doubt Hamilton is a man who will overcome his past.
Charlie Bradley met Hamilton Jr. when he signed up for an 8-week class with the Brian Hamilton Foundation last spring. It was a course to help people who have criminal records learn how to start a business and rebuild their lives.
Bradley, CEO of the foundation, quickly took note. There was something special about Hamilton Jr.
“With Davey, he is very entrepreneurial and, in that career of racing, you have to be,” said Bradley. “He’s been humbled, but he’s looking for that second chance. We believe he can do it. We’ve seen it over and over and over again.”
Hamilton Jr.’s story was perfect to make him an ambassador for the foundation, said Bradley. He, unlike some who have criminal records, was willing to be open and honest about his past faults, said Bradley.
“We believe in second chances and Davey has made his mistakes, like the vast majority of us,” he said. “We all deserve a second chance.”
For Hamilton Jr. that second chance is coming in many forms, including business owner.
He started Asphalt Paving Services of Florida in December with a silent partner, doing sealcoating, striping, pressure washing, crack filling and concrete and asphalt repair.
The company has a small shop in Tampa and Hamilton Jr.’s best friend is helping to run the business. Hamilton Jr., too, has been down in the trenches, doing estimates and calling on sales leads.
“I never thought I would be in this business,” said Hamilton Jr. “It’s very dirty. But it’s a great opportunity and something else I’m doing as my comeback.”
Hamilton Jr. said he feels blessed by the people who have supported him and those who were willing to take a chance on him. Among his biggest advocates is Michael Gardner, CEO and founder of Thin Energy Complete.
Gardner met Hamilton Jr. through mutual acquaintances.
“I just liked this kid. I just saw something in him,” said Gardner. “He was very humble, being young and making a mistake. I just saw something there.”
Gardner knew of the elder Davey Hamilton from his 11 starts in the Indy 500. But he didn’t know of his son.
He soon found out more about Hamilton Jr.’s story and he saw a little bit of a younger version of himself in Hamilton Jr.
“Young, got in a bad situation and didn’t know how to handle it. I’ve been there myself,” said Gardner. “I call it the weights of life. If you don’t’ know how to handle the weights of life?”
They will overtake you.
“But I liked his comeback and what he was about, just trying to help other people,” Gardner said. “And I think that’s what life’s about. You don’t know who you are going to touch by sharing your story.”