NASHVILLE – Comcast announced Wednesday that NASCAR driver Ryan Vargas has been selected as the 2023 Comcast Community Champion of the Year, honoring him for his philanthropic work with FACES: The National Craniofacial Association.
Vargas was recognized as the ninth recipient of the award at the Renaissance Nashville Hotel as part of the NASCAR Champion’s Week season-ending celebration.
Vargas was awarded a $60,000 prize that goes toward the charity, a cause with deep personal meaning for the 23-year-old driver. Vargas was born with craniosynostosis, a birth defect that stems from an abnormal, premature fusing of the bones in a baby’s skull. He has used his platform and spirit to raise awareness for children facing similar health challenges and said that the Comcast award’s donation will help their families with medical bills, travel and experiences at FACES summer camp.
“FACES is here to try and help that, and something like this from Comcast is a massive, massive deal,” Vargas said, pausing as he received congratulations from Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace, the 2020 award recipient. “For what FACES does for a lot of these kids, for a lot of these young adults, for a lot of these families, it is insane the amount of impact that they really do have.”
Vargas was chosen from a panel of executives at Comcast and NASCAR, and Jes Ferreira, the 2022 Comcast Community Champion. Matt Lederer, Comcast vice president and Wednesday’s top-prize presenter, said that the vote was the closest in the award’s nine-year history.
Fellow driver Jessica Friesen and team owner Max Siegel were the award’s other two finalists, and both will receive $30,000 for their designated charities. Friesen’s involvement with the Crossroads Center for Children has been critical in raising funds and spreading awareness in treating autism. Siegel’s work with the Max Siegel Youth Foundation has assisted at-risk youth with opportunities and empowerment, and his Rev Racing organization has been an important development team for aspiring minority racers and crew members.
Vargas competed in seven NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races last year, notching his first top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway in April. He has also been a regular in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in past seasons.
Vargas bears lightning-bolt-shaped scars from corrective surgery just before his first birthday. He has used the scar as a focal point in raising awareness about the ailment and inspiring other young people with craniosynostosis. When he made his Xfinity Series debut in an unsponsored entry in 2019, he promoted the Cranio Care Bears organization and FACES on his car to help spread the word.
“Seeing all the other stories of all these different people who have all these different types of cranial-facial differences that are no different than I am, that is something that I wanted to bring attention to because not many people know about it,” Vargas said. “When I go to the race track, people see my scar, and they think, ‘Oh, you did that like Lightning McQueen alongside of your head?’ And it’s like, ‘No, it’s a scar.’ And people are like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,’ and it’s like, ‘No, let me tell you about it.’ I want to tell people about these things because if I’m not going to be in this sport and have the platform that I have, I’m very fortunate to have the platform that I have here in this sport, and if I’m not using it to uplift, then I don’t deserve it.”
Vargas received a standing ovation from the room and tearful congratulations from the many well-wishers at his table, including representatives from FACES on hand for Wednesday’s festivities. Among them was FACES communications director Emily McKay, who was the first to give Vargas a hug when his name flashed on the screen as the winner.
McKay said that she has seen first-hand the impact Vargas has had as both a member of the FACES board and a participant in camp activities. She said that a 15-year-old junior counselor at the camp took Vargas’ message to heart, telling his parents that he could aspire to be anything he wanted and that his cranial condition was not a hindrance. That example, McKay says, was one of many.
“For such a young man to understand the need for the advocacy for kids with cranial-facial differences, it has just astounded me,” McKay said. “He has been so generous with our social media and doing TikToks. Anything we asked him, he does. He comes to the board meetings via Zoom, but his passion for such a young man, not only professionally in what he does, which I’m astounded at, but what he does for the craniofacial community, and he’s just going to continue doing it. …
“As far as Ryan goes, this $60,000, I was crying when we received it. It is going to help so many families and kids with travel services to get to the craniofacial surgeries they need. For Ryan to be nominated for this and have us as the nonprofit, we’re just so honored to know that young man.”
This year, Comcast crossed the $1 million mark in donations made to the nonprofit organizations represented by the award’s finalists. The organization also announced Wednesday that it made a $10,000 donation to the Sherry Strong Foundation, honoring the memory of Sherry Pollex, a finalist for the 2022 Comcast Community Champion award.