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NASCAR Illustrated: Kasey Kahne, Russell Wilson team up for children

September 04, 2014, James Riley, NASCAR Illustrated

Kahne: 'I started it to put a smile on people's faces. That's what it is all about'

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From September to December, loud music and screaming fans wouldn't strike anyone as unusual at Seattle's CenturyLink Field. But on a Monday morning in June -- when the stadium usually sits quiet -- music pumped through the crisp summer air and hundreds of children cheered, jumped and danced just outside the home of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks.

They were waiting for two of Seattle's brightest stars in sports, NFL quarterback Russell Wilson and 17-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race winner Kasey Kahne, to kick off The Drive, a two-day fund-raiser/pep rally that Wilson and Kahne organized.

With their combined star power, the duo was raising money for the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County -- and having some fun while they were at it.

The itinerary: On Monday, Kahne and Wilson spent time with the kids -- most of whom were frequent Boys & Girls Clubs attendees -- encouraging them to lead an active, healthy lifestyle. That night, Kahne and Wilson would head inland to Suncadia Resort for a concert before finishing The Drive with a Tuesday golf outing.

Coming home -- and helping -- were huge draws for Kahne.

The 34-year-old grew up in Enumclaw, an agricultural town of about 10,000 that sits in the shadow of Mount Rainier, 45 miles from downtown Seattle.

"This is where I started racing," Kahne said. "I enjoy it out here but I don't get to come out here as much anymore. Still, to get out here, my parents and family live here, it feels good to do a charity event here. I've wanted to do it a long time and it's finally working out."

So, last year, when the idea to do something with Wilson came up, Kahne jumped at the opportunity.

"I'm a huge Seahawks fan, a huge Russell Wilson fan and we got talking in the middle of last year and thought that there had to be something we could do to bring the community together -- raise some money for the Boys & Girls Clubs and put smiles on kids' faces. We've been working hard to do this."

Kahne has been an active philanthropist since he started the Kasey Kahne Foundation in 2005.

"I started it to put a smile on people's faces," Kahne said. "That's what it is all about. It's great to know you have the power to help people out who may be in an unfortunate situation and not have the resources to get help."

He and foundation staff have organized a 5K run in Charlotte, golf outings and many other fundraisers. But The Drive -- partnering with Wilson, on the other side of the country -- represented a leap in complexity.

"It's fun to do something different," Kahne said. "Doing charity events where you're not thinking too much about racing but are focused on the kids is great. To see kids so excited and having fun is what it's all about.

"You just have to make the time. Whether it's visiting a children's hospital or putting together a big event, it's just something that I'm going to do. You also have to have the right people around you to set it all up and make it go smoothly."

Kahne has developed into a pivotal player in the NASCAR community, which is rich with driver foundations and charitable causes.

"Most drivers have their own foundations and do a lot to make sure they give back," Kahne said. "I'm proud to be part of that tradition. At the end of the day, if kids are smiling and we can raise some money, it's a good day."

Kahne's counterpart, Wilson, grew up in NASCAR country. He excelled in both baseball and football in Richmond, Virginia, before leading North Carolina State to two bowl games. In 2012, he transferred to the Univ. of Wisconsin and led the Badgers to a Rose Bowl victory before he was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft.

Despite his roots, however, his activities kept him away from the race tracks.

"I've only been able to go to a race once or twice in my life because I was playing football and baseball, but I always knew about it and how the guys were doing," Wilson said. "I knew of Kasey before I got to Seattle, but I didn't know he was from here."

Today, Wilson is a folk hero in Seattle after the undersized quarterback led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl trophy in just his second season.

"I plan on being here for a long time and Kasey is from here," Wilson said. "We want to have an impact for the next 20 or 30 years. That's the goal.

"Kasey does a great job with kids because he is so humble and amazing at what he does. To work with him and spend time with these kids is really something special."

The Boys & Girls Clubs of King County, which serve more than 32,000 kids each year, would agree that the athletes' work is special. The Drive comes at a perfect time for the organization, which is growing quickly.

"By all means we need the money," Boys & Girls Clubs of King County President and CEO Calvin Lyons said. "We grew by more than 2,500 kids in one year. Seattle is the fastest-growing big city in the country. This is critical for our success."

Wilson and Kahne's message of living a healthy, principled life dovetailed perfectly with the organization's mission.

"We have programs that feed kids during the summer," Lyons said. "We make sure they not only have food to eat, but healthy food to eat. They also learn how to prepare it. Many of our clubs grow their own vegetables. We want our kids to make good choices. Our programs mean the world to them."

Kayla Salisbury, 10, is one of the children reaping the benefits of being a member of the organization.

Salisbury said she goes to her club in Seattle every day to do homework, have dinner, play games, use computers and exercise.

"It plays a big role in my life," Salisbury said. "It's really inspiring that (Kahne and Wilson) take time out of their work schedule to put on a show for us kids. There are a lot of kids who want to grow up to be just like them."

Salisbury, however, doesn't want to race cars or quarterback a football team. She wants to be a doctor -- although she is still undecided on which specialty she would like to pursue.

One of Kahne's major sponsors, Farmers Insurance, was on hand to support the tournament and the charity and recently extended its sponsorship of the No. 5 Chevrolet for three more years (12 races per year).

"Kasey has been a wonderful ambassador for our brand," said Chuck Browning, head of sponsorships and corporate giving for Farmers. "When Kasey revealed that he had a foundation and tries to give back to kids because he truly feels like he's been blessed with this true art of racing, that's when we really started to expand our relationship. We really enjoy what Kasey stands for in giving back to these kids."

After the pep rally, The Drive moved to Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington. Singers Josh Kelley, Preston Pohl and the duo American Young, headlined a dinner and live auction that went late into the night and left the hosts feeling a little sluggish the next morning.

The duo led 130 golfers through Tumble Creek Golf Course and no matter the tallies on their scorecards, the most important number from The Drive was the incredible amount of money they raised in only two days. The Drive brought in $220,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County.

Not bad for two days' work.

Raising six-figures is nice but for Wilson, it was not the most meaningful outcome of their two-day blitz.

"At the end of the day, it's being able to step into someone's life and being able to make an impact emotionally and spiritually," he said. "It's being able to connect with somebody. Engaging with someone. That's what sticks with people. Money comes and goes but at the end of the day, how you make an impact on somebody's life, on their heart, and the words you say to them, and how you make them feel goes a long way."