INDIANAPOLIS – Nothing brings out the emotions quite like what happened Tuesday night at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
Less than one hour after opening practice ended for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, 16 drivers representing the NTT IndyCar Series and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires made their annual visit to brighten the day for young hospital patients.
Children eagerly anticipated their superheroes – many still wearing their “superhero costumes,” their firesuits – invading Riley’s Child Life Zone for a blend of games and countless happy moments. Among the activities were remote-control cars donated by Speedway, the official fuel and convenience store of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the ever-competitive wagon building contest.
“It's great to have the community that helps so much with the Indy 500 around and having us to try and make these kids forget the pain that they go through,” said Helio Castroneves, the three-time Indy 500 winner and driver of the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet.
“Hopefully, we can make a little bit of a difference. When you have a community, a series, a town, where everybody that really helps each other, it's great to be part of it. Especially being a parent now, the perspective is so different when you have a kid and see kids suffering. You don't want to see them like that, so we're trying to do everything we can so they can forget why they're here.”
After pacing opening practice at IMS, reigning Indy 500 champion Will Power slowed his pace to spend time with several young patients and their parents. Among them was a young Indy car fan, Graham, who attended Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix. Power confessed that Graham’s sister reached out to him through social media last year, which immediately moved him to send an assortment of goodies.
“I love kids,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet and father of a young son. “I think when you have your own, you have a whole new appreciation and you just understand the love you have for your kid.
“So whenever you see kids now, your heart breaks for kids that have it tough. It just truly does because you know how badly it would hurt you to see your own child suffering in some way with the health issue or even the way they're treated at home.
“You just can't imagine when you were a little kid to be in this situation, so the absolute least we can do is come here and see these kids.”
Other drivers in attendance – Ed Carpenter, Max Chilton, Ben Hanley, Jack Harvey, JR Hildebrand, Ed Jones, Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball, Josef Newgarden, Patricio O’Ward, Simon Pagenaud and Spencer Pigot from the NTT IndyCar Series, along with Jarett Andretti and Dalton Kellett from Indy Lights – were joined by the Firestone Firehawk, a perennial kids’ favorite, and the 500 Festival princesses.
While the kids enjoyed being pushed around a “racetrack” by the drivers in their own “single-seater” cars, the main event was undoubtedly the wagon building contest. The red wagons are a signature at Riley, used often to transport young patients around the hospital in a more pleasant manner than the traditional hospital bed.
Teams of drivers and kids worked side by side to build a wagon the fastest. While Team Penske held the early lead, Castroneves encountered similar troubles that kept him from winning last year. In the end, it was the team of Chilton, Kellett and O’Ward, with young helpers Gabrielle and Samantha, who were crowned champions.
“I would expect a lot more from Helio because he's a dad,” joked O’Ward, driver of the No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet. “He should know how to build these. We all kind of just said, 'You do one tire, you’re doing another, you do another' and then we just flipped it back up. We just stuffed in the sides as quick as we could and we did it.
“We also had Dalton Kellett, which he's super educated in engineering, so he should know how to get his hands around a race car or a little wagon.”
Kellett, who will compete for Juncos Racing in the Freedom 100 on May 24, was pleased to be part of the event.
“It's great to see everyone from Indy Lights to (the NTT IndyCar Series) out here supporting Riley Children's Hospital,” Kellett said. “Anything we can do to bring a smile to these kids' faces is great. Whether it's telling them stories about the racetrack or playing a game of corn hole with them, we're out here to have a good time.”
Power scanned the landscape, saw the smiles on the children’s faces and reflected on it all.
“We're here this year in our (fire) suits, that's way cooler for the kids seeing race car drivers in their race suits,” he said. “And man, we've just got to do it. We need to do more of this stuff, we really do.”