STATESVILLE, N.C. — Mason Eldred had just walked the length of the runway and back with Ryan Blaney, both clad in matching suspenders and socks, when the 3-year-old turned to the NASCAR driver and whispered a confession.
“I want to go again,” he said.
“You got it, bud,” Blaney encouraged.
PHOTOS: 2019 Catwalk for a Cause
And so Mason walked down the Catwalk for a Cause runway again – this time solo, this time as the 700 or so people watching him cheered and clapped and yelled and stood in appreciation for his enthusiasm and bravery.
“He’s a little free spirit, for sure,” said Mason’s dad, Jason Eldred.
“It was very cool,” Blaney said afterward, smiling.
It was the kind of spontaneous joy that Martin Truex Jr. and Sherry Pollex encouraged in the nine children they called their “heroes” – pediatric cancer patients and survivors who walked the runway Wednesday night in the annual fundraiser for pediatric and ovarian cancer.
Truex and Pollex had hoped to raise $750,000 in the 10th year of their Catwalk for a Cause event, which has grown exponentially over the years.
Ten years ago, 50 people came to the small show and the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation raised about $7,000, Pollex said.
On Wednesday, an estimated 700 attended the fashion show, dinner and after-party concert with Cole Swindell at Statesville Regional Airport. Tickets ranged from $350 for an individual to $7,000 for a table. The Martin Truex Jr. Foundation surpassed its original goal, raising about $800,000. Money raised from this annual event has helped build the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Children’s Emergency Department in Huntersville, N.C., and the SherryStrong Integrative Oncology Clinic in Charlotte — both projects with Novant Health.
It’s not quite to the $1 million goal in one night that Pollex has for the event someday, but it’s far greater than she ever anticipated.
“We never thought it would be this big,” Pollex said.
“We really didn’t think about it,” added Truex. “Every year it was like, ‘What can we do better?’”
This year’s version included a “Fight Night” theme that meant drivers and children walked one round on the runway clad in athletic gear. Joey Logano and wife Brittany escorted 10-year-old Ruby Poulton, diagnosed with pre B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia seven months ago, down the runway in casual wear before demonstrating their best “sprinkler” dance maneuvers.
Clint Bowyer exaggerated running down the runway with his wife, Lorra, and 4-year-old Andrew Weaver, who is in recovery from neuroblastoma, before dropping down into pushups — as Andrew showed off his breakdancing moves.
And little Mason Eldred, who was so eager to take to the runway every time his turn came up that he peeked around the backstage curtain, simply paused with Blaney for a thumbs-up on his final pose in front of the crowd.
Mason, who just completed treatment in April for PH-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia, has been fighting the disease for half his life after being diagnosed at 17 months old.
“It’s all he knows,” Jason Eldred said.
Meeting Blaney about a month ago at Ryan Newman’s Rescue Ranch was a special moment for the 3-year-old, who has had a love for NASCAR since he was a baby.
“They just made a connection,” Jason Eldred said.
Mason began watching races on television with even more interest recently, and was awed when his father pointed out Blaney’s car on the track.
“That’s Ryan?!?” he exclaimed every time he saw the No. 12 zoom by.
“With all that he’s been through, it’s pretty great to see him open up,” Blaney said.
The event provides an opportunity for drivers to spend time really getting to know young cancer patients and survivors, who are the stars of the show, Pollex said.
“This night is so special because we take the competition, we take the racing piece and we just say, ‘Forget it,’” said Logano, who also accepted the champion’s journal from Truex on Wednesday night. “And we’re all about the kids tonight.”
The finale showcased Shayy Winn, an American Idol contestant who is legally blind after a tumor was removed behind her eye, belting “Rise Up” as 19 past participants in the Catwalk for a Cause joined her onstage.
It was the small moments, though, that mattered most to participants in the show.
Bowyer sat with Andrew Weaver afterward, sharing stories about how fast he has driven and taking selfies with the 4-year-old who was diagnosed with cancer at 4 months old.
“Three hours past bed time and he’s still going strong,” said Kelly Weaver, Andrew’s mom. “He loved it. It’s just amazing to see this much support for pediatric cancer and research. It’s a world that I never thought I would know anything about and now I’m in it almost every day.”
It’s a world Pollex never thought she would be a part of, either, when she and Truex began the event. Pollex is approaching the five-year anniversary of her own ovarian cancer diagnosis on August 7 — a significant milestone for cancer patients — and although she remains on oral chemotherapy, she said she feels “amazing.”
“I’ve had a couple doctors tell me I wouldn’t make it to see that day,” Pollex said. “So I’m going to go back and visit them and make sure to let them know I’m living an amazing life.”