NASCAR stars use fame to raise money for charity
RICHMOND, Va. (AP)
When devastating tornadoes swept through the South just days before Denny Hamlin's charity race, the NASCAR star made some adjustments.
Instead of splitting the money the event raised between his three favorite charities, he decided to send 10 percent to the Red Cross for tornado relief.
The announcement came during the same week that NASCAR unveiled NASCAR Unites, a new program to encourage people in racing, including fans, to make efforts as volunteers and donors.
NASCAR President Mike Helton says the initiative will help the NASCAR Foundation highlight some of the stories of generosity that go on in the sport most every day.
''It's really heartwarming to hear the stories we hear,'' Helton said at Richmond International Raceway, where Hamlin's race was held last Thursday night. ''Sometimes we get asked, 'Can you help me do this?' And it's simple to say 'Yes' because they've done all the work already.
''It's just so heartwarming to know our community is of the character they are.''
It's a feeling that seems to have spread throughout the front offices in NASCAR, too.
When the Denny Hamlin Foundation approached RIR President Doug Fritz about holding Denny Hamlin's Short Track Showdown at his track, he figured it was the least he could do as a member of a racing community in which the stars of the show also are among the most diligent in doing their part to help others.
''They are strongly committed to the communities, particularly those they grew up in, and very loyal and they've got great hearts,'' Fritz said of drivers in NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series, almost all of whom have foundations. ''They get pulled in a lot of ways on race week and off days and off weekends, and it's amazing what they still continue to do. It's phenomenal.''
In a matter of a few weeks, Fritz's team at RIR reworked its plans to accommodate the already scheduled NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and Hamlin's 75-lap Late Model race on the same night.
The daylong threat of thunderstorms that arrived only a few hours before the race kept attendance below the 5,000 fans that turned out a year ago at Southside Speedway in suburban Richmond, but the potential for growth at a track that seats 100,000 excites Hamlin. The foundation raised about $100,000 at last year's race, and that money already has been put to work.
''We were able to build a wing onto the Richmond Children's Hospital with some of the money that was donated,'' Hamlin said. ''That just shows the people from the Richmond area, and all over Virginia that come and support this event, that it helps right here in your hometown.''
The NASCAR world also has embraced the Victory Junction Gang Camp, started by Kyle and Pattie Petty to honor the memory of their son Adam, who was killed while racing. The camp serves children with chronic medical conditions and serious illnesses, and stands as a virtual monument to the generosity of the NASCAR community, with almost all its members having made sizable contributions.
''I've been really fortunate for the last couple of years to get to work with Kyle Petty and know what kind of person he is and his family and how passionate they are about Victory Junction,'' said Hermie Sadler, a racer-turned-broadcaster who raced in Hamlin's Showdown.
''They legitimately have those smiles on their faces when they are able to help kids,'' Sadler said. ''I've been to the camp and unless you've gone, you just can't explain what it's like.''
Since it opened in 2004, more than 14,000 children have spent time at the camp.
But it's not just big, attention-getting things that make NASCAR different.
''I can't ever remember a time when I've called anybody, whether it be Denny, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or whoever, either they made an appearance or autographed some stuff and sent it or spread the word in some way,'' said Sadler, who with brother Elliott has a foundation that raises money to support autism research. ''And the fans understand that because the fans are the same way. We've had unbelievable fan support through the years for our foundation.''
In Richmond, the track also is a steady contributor locally. It holds toy and food drives around Christmas, gives food left over from race weekends to the Central Virginia Food Bank, has staff out picking up trash in the neighborhood once a month, reading to children at area elementary schools, and hosts a neighborhood picnic on National Night Out Against Crime.
And that just makes it like most NASCAR venues.
In Martinsville and surrounding Henry County, which have been slammed economically in the past decade, the track serves as a fundraising arm for the Martinsville Speedway Children's Foundation, raising money that is disbursed by an independent panel. It also hosts a free Fourth of July with carnival rides and a national musical act, an after-prom party, a blood drive, a March of Dimes walk, and gives local groups the chance to earn money by helping at races.
For Helton, it's that kind of commitment from inside the race community that gets him excited to think of what stories will be told between now and the awarding of the first annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award at the end-of-year NASCAR banquet in Las Vegas.
Nominations, in the form of inspiring stories about work people are doing in support of children's causes in their community, will be accepted from April 29 through July 18.
In telling the stories, Helton said, more will be inspired.
''That,'' he added, ''is as important as money at the end of the day.''
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.