Nationwide Children's Hospital patients championed
August 16, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
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LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Front and center.
The spot typically reserved in a NASCAR driver's meeting for celebrities and CEOs attending the race was instead occupied by a group of children, ages 2 1/2 to 10 years old. None of them could hide the nervous smiles on their faces, knowing they were about to address a group of people that stretched well into the hundreds and included some of their favorite professional drivers.
"Welcome to Mid-Ohio!" they shouted in unison, instantly lifting everyone off their feet in an infield tent Saturday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and drowning out every noise in the immediate area with uproarious applause.
The applause would seem out of place for just an ordinary 'Welcome', but these were no ordinary kids -- they were champions. Patient champions, to be exact.
With the NASCAR Nationwide Series spending the weekend in the series' title sponsor's backyard, just outside of its home base in Columbus, Ohio, more than 4,000 Nationwide associates were on hand for Saturday's Nationwide Children's Hospital 200. Ten 'patient champions,’ brave children who’ve been diagnosed with various life-altering diseases, were each paired up with a series driver who gave them a VIP experience at the race track as honorary members of each team for the weekend.
In an effort to celebrate the miraculous patients and their courage while raising awareness for the hospital and the care provided to children from all over the world, the 10 drivers/teams/sponsors donated their time and paint schemes to honor those involved. Each paint scheme was specifically designed with each child in mind, including input from each child, too.
From the minute the children were introduced, it was clear that racing took a back seat this weekend.
"We had a little girl named Allie (Norman), who is our patient champion and she has (Acute Lymphoblastic) Leukemia," said Brendan Gaughan, driver of the No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. "Right now, she is in maintenance, which, anybody that's a daddy in the room, you'll get a tear in your eye. It's a 10-year-old girl with leukemia. You just can't help but crying. But she's doing fantastic.
"I met her (Thursday) at the hauler parade. I went to the baseball game with her, spent some time with her. Amazing little girl. It's amazing how positive most of these children are when they're like that. I got a great stat from Nationwide Children's yesterday. Leukemia, when I was growing up, had a 10 percent mortality rate. So if you got leukemia, it was a 10 percent chance of living. They have that number in pediatric leukemia up to 90 percent. So that's just absolutely amazing how far research has come. The hospital itself is unreal. Totally different than most hospitals you're ever going to see."
Nationwide Children's Hospital, America's third-largest pediatric hospital and research center, has been named one of the best children's hospitals by both U.S. News & World Report and Parents magazines and has more than 1 million patient visits each year from all 50 U.S. states and more than 30 foreign countries.
Researchers at the hospital are also discovering cures for some of the most challenging diseases and complications impacting children, from prematurity to cancer.
"We went to their NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and I've got a 4 year old and a 2 year old and when we were pregnant, (doctors) told us that 26 weeks is the cutting edge of where they're taking children and they're surviving. I got to see a child born at 22 weeks. The baby was born at 12 ounces. That's your Coca-Cola can," said Gaughan Friday during an emotional press conference. "I used to be stronger at doing this, until I had kids. I used to be able to leave and cry. You know, talk about it and not cry. Now, after having kids, you just think about this stuff, and it's like, 'Oh, man. I'm lucky and happy that mine are healthy.'
"Throughout the year, we go to a lot of places and do a lot of things and a lot of children's deals and it's separate from the race track. It's just something we want to do or NASCAR puts together or a sponsor puts together, but Nationwide Insurance is one of those companies that has committed to spending God knows how many millions of dollars in this hospital. What makes this event special is this series sponsor, how much they've committed to not only the sport of NASCAR and what a great job they've done in our sport, but where they choose to spend their money and their marketing people and their strategic development people, I've got to say (it) might be one of the best in the country when they try to do these things. I'm super impressed with them. We do love coming here, not only because it's a road course, but it is special to be able to do this stuff with the kids."
Sean Tibbs is a 10-year-old boy from Blacklick, Ohio, who loves Legos, soccer, golf, video games and reading -- you know, the normal stuff -- but, like Allie Norman, has been diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. After seeing signs of improvement in his condition over the past two years, he and his family learned that his leukemia had returned in January, which was then followed by intense treatment and a bone marrow transplant.
He spent Saturday with Joe Gibbs Racing's Elliott Sadler, getting a tour of the No. 11 hauler and even getting to sit atop the pit box for the race, sporting a smile so big you'd think he was just any other 10-year-old kid at his first NASCAR race.
"This is bigger than the race," said Sadler, who gave Tibbs an autographed helmet and even let him sit inside his Toyota Camry and grip the steering wheel. "I think what the Nationwide Children's Hospital does this weekend is absolutely amazing. My son was in the NICU for nine weeks, so I understand a little bit about what these families are going through. For them to be able to come out here and to be a part of our pit crew, for us to show them a little bit of what we do every weekend is definitely a blessing. It's just such a special race. It's so neat that it's so close here to the Nationwide headquarters and the Children's Hospital. They do a good job getting all the families out here to watch the races. It's definitely a neat deal."
Regardless of the outcome of the Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 on Saturday, there were 10 winners. Actually, strike that.
There were 10 champions.
The following teams and drivers have generously offered to partner with a Nationwide Children's Hospital Patient Champion for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 16, 2014:
-- No. 2 of Brian Scott and Richard Childress Racing -- Paired with Patient Champion Avery Neely See the special No. 2 paint scheme