In going home and giving back, Kahne finds worthwhile rewards

Kasey Kahne

CLE ELUM, Wash. -- A vast backdrop of majestic Evergreens and bristling Aspen trees intersected a mostly cloudless blue sky detailed by towering mountains in the distance.


The pause-and-breathe-it-in scenery made it wonderfully easy to forget the daily hubbub of life. Just getting to the Suncadia Lodge in rural Cle Elum, Washington -- about an hour-and-a-half drive inland from Seattle -- felt like a great escape.


So much good -- hearts and intentions -- awaited.


It is a spectacularly scenic trip to NASCAR star Kasey Kahne's annual summer charity event, fittingly called "The Drive" in his rustic and picturesque home state. The great work done by Kahne and his philanthropic partner, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, in this fund-raising effort is as awe-inspiring as the location it is set in.


The local landscape, the massive effort behind the scenes and life-changing results of this annual benefit for Seattle Children's Hospital are spectacular in every sense.


"When I first decided to do a golf tournament I wanted it to be there because I know it's a big deal out there and a lot of work would go into it," said Kahne, who stayed an extra day to enjoy the perfect weather.


"I thought that would be a good place for it since I don't get to spend as much time out there anymore and try to raise money for the hospital and kids in need in that area."


The socializing, the auction and the golf tournament are certainly the marquee moments of the event, but just getting to the location is a drive to remember.

Kasey Kahne is a big Seahawks fan, and teaming up with Russell Wilson gives him added incentive to root for his home team.

Signs on the winding, elevation-rich Interstate 90 mark the national forest borders, designating them by Native American names such as Wenatchee and Snoqualmie.


There are few, if any, billboards along the highway, and unlike most of the rest of the nation, fast food drive-thrus don't line each exit. Instead, the roadway features inviting log cabin restaurants with understated signage, attracting you to places such as the Woodman Lodge for a steak dinner and some Washington wine.


Barren ski resorts and their empty lifts sit on the mountainside along the highway, awaiting a robust wintertime snow.


Visitors understandably take some pause at the unusual signage along the roadways, which includes an eclectic mix of "Volcano Evacuation Route" directions and "Please Don't Drug and Drive" reminders, the latter a nod to the state's 2012 legalization of marijuana.


Even way out of Seattle-proper, on the highways cutting through bustling new-money towns, the traffic is disproportionately more Subaru Outback than Mercedes-Benz coupe. There are plenty of 1990s-era pick-up trucks -- often with canoes in the tailgate -- driving alongside the long lines of logging big rigs.


This is, undeniably, a place far from NASCAR's norm.


The closest Sprint Cup Series race is nearly 800 miles south in Sonoma, California, where Kahne secured a hard-fought, ninth-place finish a day before this event in the first road-course race of the season.


The Pacific Northwest is Kahne's home, and while the Enumclaw native has had to travel East for career's sake, he has always made the Northwest a priority in his heart. And this huge annual fundraising effort by two of the area's favorite athletes has made more than a $1 million difference for children fighting cancer at Seattle Children's Hospital.


More specifically, their work has facilitated the beginnings of a major breakthrough in cancer treatment, and the feeling this weekend was of resounding hope.


"I remember being a kid and you go to do something and get the opportunity to meet someone, at a race or a football game," Kahne said. "You have a blast and it's one of the best days of your whole year.


"I try to give kids that opportunity at different levels throughout the year. That's why I started what I did. And to meet Russell and get to know him and work with him, that opportunity has been a really, really good thing for me."




The first night of The Drive is a laid-back affair -- an outside gathering with drinks and appetizers and good music. The cool, Pacific Northwest temperatures and late-night sunset are a perfect cap for any day. And the massive crowd attending the auction event -- nearly 500 people -- sported lots of smiles and handshakes.


And generous hearts.


The No. 5 Great Clips-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Kahne would drive a week later in Daytona Beach sat outside -- the paint scheme designed by 8-year-old Noelia Gutierrez, a leukemia patient at Seattle Children's Hospital.


RELATED: The young artist behind Kahne's Daytona paint scheme


Kahne and Wilson mingled with everyone and took turns on stage encouraging high, higher and higher-yet bids on the items being auctioned. Kahne's Daytona 500 ticket package was a huge fan favorite.


Through all the interactions on stage, in the crowd, alongside family and amidst plenty of enthusiastic friends and fans, it was apparent that Wilson and Kahne's friendship is genuine. Their commitment to raising money for the children's hospital is obvious and infectious. It is also a true difference-maker.


Wilson, the 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year, led the Seattle Seahawks to their first Super Bowl win in 2013 and then guided the team to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance a year later. At only 27 years old, the three-time NFL Pro Bowler is Seattle's bona fide sports leader -- beloved and admired in an area that appreciates the idea of doing good.


It was an easy decision for Wilson to work with Kahne, Seattle's favorite NASCAR star, in this highly motivated mission to help kids.

Kasey Kahne and Russell Wilson -- and Ciara, too -- have become friends while doing charitable work. (Photo via @Seahawks)


"We became friends right away,'' Wilson said. "I respect Kasey's professionalism, the way he goes about life. I thought, 'Let's see if we can do something fun together.' I love charity work and he does, too, so it was an organic fit from the get-go.


"We started off our first event, I remember we went to [Seahawks venue] CenturyLink Field and had a huge kind of bash, and tons of kids were out there behind the Hawks' Nest. We had a good day with that. Had this huge event.


"So we came out here and raised a ton of money, and from there just built our relationship."


Wilson was no stranger to NASCAR.


"My dad used to take me to the races," Wilson explained. "It was probably one of the first real big events I went to. My dad knew Joe Gibbs really well. Joe Gibbs coached my dad at one point (for the San Diego Chargers) and had him come out to a race. So that's how I kinda met Kasey. And I was able to watch him as an athlete do so well. I love great athletes and I love what he's about."


While the Monday night auction provided a wonderful opportunity to socialize and bid on rare opportunities -- autographed Kasey Kahne memorabilia or dinner with Wilson after a Seahawks home game -- the golf tournament on Tuesday featured the chance for The Drive's most ambitious participants to tee it up alongside celebrities.


Kahne's good friend and his race day spotter, Kevin Hamlin, a former popular and successful late-model driver in the Seattle area, drove around on a golf cart taking photos on the course.


Sports stars such as Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse, comedian George Lopez and movie star Chris Pratt, who grew up in nearby Lake Stevens, Washington, were among a long list of The Drive's generous golfers.


"Both my wife and I are from the Pacific Northwest so this is home for us," Pratt said. "We've been involved with Seattle Children's Hospital for the past couple years. And we're huge fans of Kasey.


"Any time you get a chance to do something like this, it's really a no-brainer, you know. Good people, good cause, a lot of fun."


This was the second year Lopez has participated in The Drive, and he also spoke of the can't-miss combination of spending time with one of his favorite NASCAR drivers and raising money for children.


"Absolutely, I want to help out Russell and Kasey," Lopez said. "You get asked to do a lot of these, but you know which ones are really the better ones.


"You get a guy like Russell and Kasey and they get together, it's a good thing."




On that opening night, as the auction bidding increased with frenzied excitement, a very happy gentleman stood near the stage, off to the side -- his jaw often dropping in amazement and gratitude.


Dr. Jeff Sperring had a smile on his face and warmth in his heart.


The CEO of Seattle Children's Hospital knows first-hand what Kahne and Wilson's efforts can produce -- not only hope, but healing.


In fact the hospital's "Strong Against Cancer" work has already made a potentially life-saving difference for a set of leukemia patients at the facility who had not responded to chemotherapy or even bone marrow transplants and really didn't have many options remaining.


An astounding 93 percent of 42 children treated at the hospital with a groundbreaking immunotherapy -- re-programming the body's T-cells -- responded with complete remission.


Sperring called it "just staggering results" and points to the specific work of Kahne and Wilson for raising money to help fund the clinical trial.


"This is huge for us," Sperring said. "We have amazing programs and we're so proud of the work we do. There are ways we can raise awareness for it, but honestly, nothing does it the same way as having two incredible people like Russell and Kasey be a part of it. Because of who they are and what they do, it gives so much more exposure to our kids and the great work that's going on here.


"When you get people that are interested, both of them are all about doing this the right way, not about promoting themselves. There's just a genuine passion from both of them and they want to do to the right thing for the kids. You know that because they take the time to learn. They want to know about the clinical trials. They want to meet the kids. So that's what I so appreciate about both of them -- they are absolutely so genuinely committed to this and doing it the right way. And that makes them even better spokespeople for what's going on because they are so educated about it and taken the time to meet the kids and know what's going on here."


Sperring has some background specifically in the way NASCAR drivers' great work can produce great results. He previously led the efforts at Riley Hospital for Children in Indiana and is fondly familiar with the sport's ability to make a difference.

Flex those muscles! (Photo via @GREATracing)

"For Kasey, what an incredible level of dedication,'' Sperring said. "He's in the middle of the race schedule and all over the country, and we don't have a race here, so again, you see he's doing this because it's in his heart, he feels like it's the right thing for the kids and he's helping kids in an area where he grew up.


"Like all of us, there's that connection. He wants to make a difference in an area he grew up. We all love that he's still part of our community here. It's an amazing thing he does. You can't overestimate the difference, the impact he has in doing that.


"Both Wilson and Kahne have made visiting patients at Seattle Children's Hospital a priority, not a photo-op. And their time there feels as important as the money they raise."


Both Kahne and Wilson agree.


"It's definitely a lasting memory,'' Wilson said. "I think the cool part, and Kasey can attest to this too, the cool part is knowing that you can affect somebody's life, and give back.


"Kasey's one of the best professional NASCAR drivers in the world and I get to play football for a living. The cool part is, people look up to you for whatever reason -- whether it's they like to win, or your personality, whatever it may be.


"But the truth is we look up to those kids. They're the real fighters -- their ability to stay so strong and overcome a situation. You go to children's hospitals and see these smiles on their faces even though they are going through the worst time they could imagine physically.


"So, that's what's inspiring for us. In terms of giving back, to whom much is given much is required. That's what this life is about: Serving, giving back and loving on people and putting smiles on their faces and trying to be encouraging for people to overcome situations."


And Kahne couldn’t agree more. Now a father to Tanner, born in October, he is even more adamant about wanting to make a difference in kids' lives.


"I've had a lot of strong feeling to help kids, not just cancer, but kids maybe not as fortunate as others," Kahne said. "It stuck with me, to try to give them an opportunity they aren't used to or put a smile on their face. Plus, having (my son) Tanner, now there are times I see different things and I think of Tanner. 


"Sometimes, for whatever reason I meet these kids and it gives me those feelings and makes me more emotional; I sit there and think about it and really want to do something to help that kid or help him enjoy that day.


"When it does happen, it's a great feeling and it's hard to really leave."

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