NASCAR drivers like to fashion themselves as something resembling humanitarians, racing for fashionable causes. Most notably, there is the “Prelude To The Dream” at Eldora Speedway, pitting 28 of the world’s best drivers against each other on a high-banked half-mile holy grail of dirt track racing. There have also been drivers using charitable causes as sponsorships, such as Jeff Gordon being sponsored for the majority of the 2011 season by the AARP’s “Drive To End Hunger” campaign. Other drivers, such as Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano, have helped with clean-up and recovery efforts in the tornado-ravaged city of Joplin, Missouri.
One particular cause this week at Michigan that likely won’t get as much media attention as the charitable efforts some of these other drivers have received is the cause that the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports-owned entry driven by Travis Kvapil is racing for. The team, this week, is sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and will have the Wes Leonard Heart Team foundation stickers on the rear quarter-panels of the car.
For those unfamiliar with the star-crossed tale of Wes Leonard, he is the Fennville (Michigan) High School basketball star who died of a heart ailment shortly after hitting the game-winning lay-up to cap off his team’s undefeated season against Bridgeman. As the students and fans rushed the court, euphoria quickly turned into tragic anguish as Leonard collapsed on the court and was pronounced dead just a few hours later. In the wake of the tragedy, a charitable foundation was set up in Leonard’s memory to honor children who have died from S.C.A. (Sudden Cardiac Arrest) and in an effort to prevent similar tragedies from occuring again.
This weekend at Michigan, the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford Fusion piloted by Travis Kvapil will be racing for more than the sake of sport. They will be racing to bring awareness to race fans about Sudden Cardiac Arrest and to honor the memory of a fallen high-school basketball star. The team may be thirteen points out of the top-35 in owner points, but for once, points racing is a mere after-thought in the big picture for Front Row Motorsports. While a solid top-20 to top-25 effort would be icing on the cake, in the grand scheme of things, if they can make one fan aware of the cause they are racing for, then that is a victory in of itself.
Wes Leonard’s immediate family and members of the organization created in his memory will be honored guests at Michigan International Speedway this weekend. While having to bury your child is an unthinkable tragedy in its own right, the Leonards can know that at least one team in the close-knit fraternity of NASCAR is willing to race in their son’s honor. In a sport where there is so much focus on the negative side of racing, whether it’s drivers or owners getting into fist fights, teams being decked for rules violations, stories like these that highlight a good cause far too often fall between the cracks. But, maybe we as NASCAR journalists and fans should focus more on the positives of racing than on the negative side.