C'mon, team owners, hop aboard the St. Jude Express

9/20/2007 - NASCAR

Like many business arenas, the NASCAR garage can be a cutthroat place. It's rather corporate these days -- especially as the piles of money involved continue to grow -- and folks are apt to watch their own backs. Just how it is in big business.

But at the same time, there's no denying that when someone's down or in need of assistance, folks don't hesitate to jump in and help out. I've seen it countless times. This is the latest such occurrence -- and it's not yet complete.

Back in June a longtime friend of mine, Ryan Kurek -- one of the first cats I met in this soap opera -- called in a favor. He owns a marketing firm and had a unique concept he hoped to activate, but was struggling to get traction.

The children are an inspiration to us, and we hope we can return the favor by providing them and their families with a race-day experience they'll always remember.

Jason Rittenberry

The idea was awesome: coordinate an initiative between NASCAR, Memphis Motorsports Park and the Busch Series teams to offer the children of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital a 150 mph canvas.

He wanted to develop a plan to enable St. Jude's kids to create the paint schemes the cars would run in the Sam's Town 250. He wanted to give sick kids who don't smile very often a reason to forget about being sick for a while and, well, maybe even smile.

St. Jude offers treatment to the sickest of kids. Doctors' toughest cases are sent there, and all patients are accepted whether or not the family can pay for treatment. Parents with insurance coverage don't pay a penny more than their insurance covers. Parents without insurance don't pay a penny.

That's not all. St. Jude also is the world's premier research center for childhood diseases. That's not cheap. The hospital must raise more than $1 million per day to keep the doors open.

Many of these kids are terminally ill, and don't have much to look forward to aside from exhausting medical treatment.

Kurek wanted to change that, but he was treading water in a pool of politics. It's not easy to convince a company that spends a few million to slap its name on the hood of a race car to make room for an alternative focus -- even something as obviously beneficial as this.

So he sat down and wrote a letter to introduce teams and industry personalities, like Greg Zipadelli -- Tony Stewart's crew chief and a big St. Jude guy -- to the project. Kurek also contacted ESPN, which will broadcast the Oct. 27 event. ESPN showed interest, Kurek said, but needed to see some team commitment.

That's when he contacted me. He needed something tangible for the industry to grasp. I wanted to help him -- but more than that I wanted to help him help some kids who more than deserved the effort.

He figured a column on ESPN.com was a viable option. It was a rock in the slingshot, anyway.

"There's no question it was the spark we had to have," he said. "Suddenly people got it."

Interest began to grow. The track jumped on board immediately. NASCAR thought it was a great idea. But teams were still hesitant. So Kurek developed an information packet and hit the road to Bristol, Tenn., for a good ol' fashioned door-to-door sales pitch.

He met representatives from St. Jude and Memphis Motorsports Park at the track, and the trio went trailer to trailer, praying someone would share their passion for these kids. A handful blew them off, but most seemed receptive.

Then, the following week, Kevin Nienhuis from St. Jude contacted AutoZone, a neighbor there in Memphis and sponsor of Richard Childress Racing's No. 21 Chevy.

Hello, traction.

Nienhuis received an e-mail from AutoZone saying it would participate. CitiFinancial, sponsors of Robert Yates Racing's No. 90 Ford, followed soon thereafter. Citi would like five kids to each design a different section of its car. All said, 15 teams are now committed, including many of the most visible in the NASCAR Busch Series:

    • No. 28 Checkers Chevrolet, Jay Robinson racing
    • No. 10 Fan1st.com Toyota, Braun Racing
    • No. 0 Hefty Chevrolet, DDL Motorsports
    • No. 21 AutoZone Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
    • No. 90 CitiFinancial Ford, Robert Yates
    • No. 33 Campers World Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick
    • No. 77 Dollar General Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick
    • No. 36 BigLots Chevrolet, McGill Motorsports
    • No. 38 Great Clips Toyota, Braun Racing
    • No. 22 Super Cuts Dodge, Fitz Motorsports
    • No. 44 Family Dollar Dodge, Fitz Motorsports
    • No. 35 McDonald's Ford, Team Rensi
    • No. 47 Clorox Ford, Wood Bros./jtg Racing
    • No. 59 Kingsford Ford, Wood Bros/jtg Racing.
    • No. 11 Chevrolet, CJM Racing
    • No. 99 Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing

A fine lot, for certain. But there are no Roush Fenway cars, no Gibbs cars, just one RCR ride. Come on, folks. Put the politics aside for a day. Make some kids happy.

Can you imagine the rush those youngsters will get seeing their cars sitting in the garage? Seeing them speed by on TV? That is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The hope remains to get every team in the field involved in the effort. They need to be involved. Why they wouldn't be is beyond me. These Busch teams tell me time and again how they want to differentiate themselves from the Cup boys.

Well, here's the chance. The Cup boys won't be there to steal your thunder. They'll be down the road in Atlanta.

Some of the premier sponsors in the Busch ranks are committed, so those that don't join in will stick out like Carl Edwards' thumb.

ESPN is fully committed to covering the project during the prerace show and throughout the event. The track secured Diamond Rio to sing with the kids, and the kids also will join Memphis movie producer Craig Brewer in giving the command to start engines. The drivers whose teams are already committed will accompany the children who designed their paint schemes during driver introductions.

The kids began designing paint schemes during an organized coloring day at St. Jude last weekend. But the race is still six weeks away -- more than enough time for the remaining 29 teams and sponsors to step up. They need to step up.

"While the children's paint schemes will create a 'rainbow' of race cars for our fans and a national TV audience, the track's efforts will be focused on these precious kids," said Jason Rittenberry, Memphis Motorsports Park vice president and general manager.

"The children are an inspiration to us, and we hope we can return the favor by providing them and their families with a race-day experience they'll always remember."

Kurek will always hold St. Jude dear to his heart. Before he was born, Kurek's great-grandmother told his mother that St. Jude would always look after her baby boy. In turn, his middle name is Jude.

"St. Jude did look after me, and this is my way of paying him back," Kurek said.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.