Actress Kristy Swanson might have been able to drive stakes into bloodsuckers in the cult movie “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but she’d never driven a clutch before Friday, when she got behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car at the Auto Club Speedway.
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For Swanson, the hardest part about the Drive4COPD Pro-Am Celebrity Racing Challenge was trying to understand what the instructors were telling her through her headsets.
"There was a lot of yelling going on," she said. "But I loved it."
So did Rob Riggle, a "Daily Show" alum who can also be seen in the recently released "21 Jump Street" movie.
"Everyone has a fantasy of being a race car driver," he said.
Riggle, Swanson and other celebrities got to live that fantasy Friday — and help raise awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, the third-leading cause of death in the United States.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. The disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness. About 12 million people have the disease but don’t know it, according to COPD Foundation President John Walsh, who was diagnosed with the disease in 1989.
"I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life," he told me. "It’s not just a smoker’s disease."
Walsh urges people who think they might have the disease to get tested because there are therapies to reduce the symptoms and help one live a normal life.
"You can absolutely live a normal life," Walsh said. "You live with COPD, not die from COPD."
But, he said, "When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters."
Danica Patrick serves as the spokesperson for the COPD Foundation. Her grandmother died of the disease.
On Friday, NASCAR drivers Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Elliott Sadler served as the professional team captains in the pro-am race. Kyle Busch also attended to lend support.
Anna Rawson, an LPGA golfer and model, said while she was driving to Fontana, she was worried about "going too fast and crashing."
"Now that I’m here, I worry about going too slow."
Several celebrities had previous racing experience.
Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, probably shocked some onlookers with her driving skills. She had some problems stalling out of the pit box, but once she got the car going, she was fast on the track and posted a 52.935-second lap time. Cartwright has held a NASCAR license since 2008.
Frankie Muniz, star of "Malcolm in the Middle," won the celebrity category of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race in Long Beach, Calif., in 2005 and professionally raced in the Champ Car Atlantic Series.
"That’s why I disappeared in Hollywood," he explained. He said given the choice between Hollywood or racing cars, it’s not even close: "100 percent racing."
Muniz posted the second-fastest time of the day with a 51.179 lap time.
But it was Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon gold medalist and patriarch of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” who was the heavy favorite before the race. Jenner had previously raced for Jack Roush and was a professional driver from 1984 to 1988.
Jenner admired the handling of the cars, noting that "they take the left turns well."
Some of Jenner’s family was at the race, including Scott Disick, the boyfriend of Jenner’s stepdaughter, Kourtney. "If (Bruce) doesn’t win, it’s kind of embarrassing," he said.
Jenner posted the fifth-best lap time of 51.870, but his team, led by Greg Biffle, came in first.
His lap time was bested by his son, Brandon Jenner, who drove the track in 48.657 seconds.