With the Petit Le Mans just days away, race teams are busy gearing up for one of the biggest races the American Le Mans Series has.
But on Tuesday morning, drivers stepped away from the track and into the pediatric unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center to spend some time with its patients.
For the last five years, the Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer has teamed up with the series, becoming its official charity.
The foundation recruited a handful of drivers to interact with local pediatric patients by building, decorating and racing Pinewood Derby cars.
“We call this diversionary therapy, which means for the 45 minutes or so the kids are sitting with the guys, building race cars, having fun, they’re not thinking about what’s going on around them,” said Dave Marchioni, the foundation’s motorsports director.
The foundation aims to “erase the effects of pediatric cancer and optimize each child’s quality of life” through intervention programs like Tuesday’s.
In fact, in every city the series races in, the foundation and drivers can be found visiting local hospitals.
“Anytime you can, as a motorsports driver, get away and just reconnect with situations like this when you can really spend time with children that kind of look up to you, it’s very touching and very rewarding,” said Kuno Wittmer, SRT Motorsports driver. “It’s something that I offer myself to in almost every event now.”
And in the midst of one of the biggest races of the year, and the last on the schedule, many drivers and race teams are tied up preparing for the 10-hour race.
But some make it a priority to use any spare time to connect with locals, especially those who may look up to them.
“This is the one activity that we do that we never have a problem getting people to participate in,” said Scott Atherton, president and CEO of the American Le Mans Series. “In fact, as is the case (Tuesday), our drivers outnumber the kids.
“We don’t do it for media purposes — that’s not the motivation. If that happens, that’s great because, frankly, we like to (see) the Austin Hatcher Foundation and their efforts more widely publicized, but this one comes from the heart. I’m part of the management of this series and whenever my schedule permits, I always try and make it a point to get out here for exactly that reason. It makes you feel how fortunate you are, to put it bluntly.”
The effort is appreciated from the children and even their parents, who sometimes feel the stress of having to juggle life inside and outside of the hospital.
“It’s so nice for them to come out here and do this for us,” said Misty Carey, mother of 3-year-old Bryce, who has been in the hospital since last Thursday with a bacterial infection. “It’s just wonderful that they take their time to do this.”
Bryce will walk away from the event with a signed magazine, a derby car and a story his parents can tell for years to come.
“(Bryce) loves it,” said Carey. “He loves race cars. He said this morning he wanted to drive. He said: ‘Forget about making them, let’s drive them.’”
But, Wittmer said, it’s a symbiotic relationship between the drivers and the patients, and after every event, he walks away feeling more grounded.
“We’re fortunate in that we take life for granted sometimes,” said Wittmer. “When you come here, it really grounds you back down on two feet and you realize that life is very fragile, and that’s what brings a smile to my face every time I walk in.”
It’s that feeling that keeps Wittmer, who has spent time visiting numerous hospitals in the cities he’s raced in this year, volunteering to do this again.
“As long as I’ve done this, I’ve never had a driver come out of it that didn’t immediately go: ‘OK, so when’s the next one? Can I do the next one?’” said Marchioni. “Once they’ve done it, they’re always fully engaged.”