“An opportunity presented itself with a child who had been diagnosed with cancer,”
reflects co-founder Doug Neil.
"Someone had asked, 'Would it be possible for us to take that child around the track for a hot lap?’ It began with that simple request and trying to put a smile on someone's face. That child was a patient at Children’s of Alabama. And it grew from there,”
“One child became two children, and then another. It grew to the point where we would have four, five or even six children who we’d get word of that wanted to come out to the track. We would typically bring them out for hot laps on Friday. Grand-Am would make the track available and allow us 30 minutes after the track went cold on Friday evening for us to be able to take the kids out for an experience.”
“At first, we got the kids on those Friday afternoons, and we would take them around to meet the drivers and other team members and let them sit in the race cars, doing a typical kind of hospitality. Then we asked several of the celebrity drivers at the driving experience to step in to give the kids a ride. They were all very gracious and always said yes. Then they would take the kids around the track - at speed. We had some kids who were nervous but by the end of the lap they climbed out of the cars laughing and wanting to go again. They had a blast,” smiled Neil. “There were lots of smiles, lots of excitement and a lot of fun. It was impromptu; very little planning went into it. It all just came together and grew from there.”
Following the earliest of these experiences, the doctors at Children’s of Alabama observed that those children who had visited the track were having far more positive results in their treatments.
“We got feedback from the hospital that the doctors said these kids seemed to experience positive reactions. Certainly, their attitude toward their treatment had improved. It seemed to give them something to look forward to or, better yet, maybe a distraction, something to take their mind off of the treatment and the task at hand. We gave them something to do. We recognized early on that when a kid deals with childhood cancer they have to forgo so much of their other experiences in life, like being a part of a baseball or the softball team or the soccer team. This is something that we can do to give them an experience, a team experience.”
A sudden downshift would solidify the importance of the program on a very personal basis for everyone involved. Addison Sewell, a member of the same soccer club as Neil’s daughter, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of childhood cancer. When Neil heard Patrick Dempsey, television and movie superstar as well as talented race driver and team owner, would be coming to Birmingham to learn the track ahead of his first race there, the sparks flew. Neil knew Addison loved “Grey’s Anatomy” and just maybe Racing for Children’s could connect a very sick girl with “McDreamy.”
“It was an awakening for me,”
“What if that little girl was my daughter?”
That is when Patrick [Dempsey] got involved. He had really just begun to break into racing. He had come over a couple of months before the Grand-Am race to learn the track. He was very nice and very down to earth. When he came back for the race, he was approached by Brett Collins of Zoom Motorsports and Racing for Children’s about visiting Addison.
"He was very gracious, and he spent over an hour with Addison at the hospital. He gave her his telephone number and asked her to text and tell him what she thought of the show [Grey’sAnatomy] each week, to get well and come out and see him in California sometime.”
Addison had a difficult but successful treatment during the summer, keeping her from visiting Dempsey on the set of the massively successful hospital drama. However, the two stayed in touch and he provided tickets to her family to attend the Grand-Am Rolex race event at Barber the following Spring.
2011 Honorary Crew Chief: Addison Sewell
RaceSeries/Event: Indy Grand Prix: Continental Class - Grand Am Cup in a BMW Driver 1st Dinner & Auction: April 8, 2011 Event Guest Speaker: Patrick Dempsey DanikaPatrick, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti all attended the dinner. Dinner presented by IBERIABANK (MPT sponsored the tent and the car.)
That’s when the founders drew up the plan to modify the Racing for Children’s platform, drawing upon the racing community and relationships they’d developed and find a way to help these kids win their races.
In addition to providing hot laps at the track for kids during the year, why not hold a charity auction and dinner at Barber Vintage Museum the evening before the annual Grand-Am race weekend, then actually race a car covered in handprints of children in treatment at Children’s of Alabama during that event, host a patient hospitality tent on the back straight of the track for those kids and their families and their doctors and nurses to watch the race events and, at the same time, leverage all of those moments to raise awareness and research funds to find a cure. The team saw the potential but to pull it off they were going to need help – a team of their own.
Needing sponsorship and support from the community for the endeavor to be a success, the founders of Racing for Children’s were introduced to Ed Aldag and Emmett McLean of Medical Properties Trust, a Birmingham-based hospital focused real estate investment trust, who they asked to come on board as a sponsor for the event.
“When they first came to my office and asked us to get involved, it wasn’t a very big ask. It was an easy decision for Emmett and me and the rest of the charity committee to make, and of course the cause was one that absolutely everyone could get behind,” said Ed Aldag, Chairman, President and CEO of MPT. The company’s support has not waivered since.
The first Annual Racing for Children’s Charity Dinner & Auction was held April 8, 2011. Addison was named the first Racing for Children’s “Honorary Crew Chief” – a Children’s of Alabama patient selected to serve as an honorary crew member for the team and as well as an ambassador of RFC. Patrick Dempsey, who was in attendance as a driver, was so inspired he stepped to the stage as an impromptu speaker for the dinner that was also attended by other drivers.
One of the earliest people to impact the Racing for Children’s effort was legendary Porsche driver Hurley Haywood. Considered the greatest endurance race car driver of all time,Haywood was not only racing competitively in Grand-Am championship but was also the Lead Instructor at the Porsche Sport Driving School – now the Porsche TrackExperience – which is headquartered at Barber Motorsports Park.
“Through this process in our early years, Hurley was in Birmingham assisting with the PorscheTrack Experience. We developed a relationship with him and he really took us under his wing providing direction. We were trying to do a one-off event for the program. We had one race at Birmingham during the Grand Prix weekend, and we had to beg the sanctioning body to let us in. We were way in the back of the field. It was the start of the handprint livery. Hurley helped us to really raise our game,”
said co-founder Brynley King.
In 2013, the RFC team went to the Daytona 24 Hour and approached Hurley Haywood about Brumos carrying the RFC livery on their Porsche for the race at Barber that year. After listening to the pitch, Haywood asked for a minute to discuss it with Dan Davis before coming back with his decision.
“I have always been one to take the kids and let them sit in the race car and explain what they are looking at,”
offered the three-time Le Mans winner.
“One year, when we were racing the Porsche at Barber, there was one kid who was sitting there, and you could see the smile come on his face and he started asking lots of questions. By the end of the program, he was totally keen on racing and cars. It gives these kids who have life threatening diagnosis something to smile about. It isa good program. It is for the kids. You could see it making a difference right before your eyes. That is a pretty special feeling.”
They agreed to carry the RFC handprints added to the colors of the world famous Brumos livery – and they agreed to do it for FREE.
Racing to Cure Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders