Ryan Elliott from the Make-A-Wish crew shared these thoughts about a few of the heartwarming stories we've either been part of or learned about – and we wanted to share his thoughts with you. Enjoy.
The one experience that has stood out the most for me was when Austin's wish to win a race for his team was granted last year in Las Vegas. It really put into perspective the magnitude of what we do every day. He could have wished for anything in the world, and Austin picked what we do every day. I think sometimes we begin to take what we do for granted; traveling, being away from our families, these things wear on us and we start to forget how amazing it is and how fortunate we are. But that day, watching Austin win in front of all of the fans in Las Vegas and seeing how happy he was, just really brought it home for each one of us.
There was one wish that we learned about when we went to New Jersey and visited the Samuel and Josephine Plumeri Wishing Place. First of all, the Wishing Place is like nothing you've ever seen before. It's an unbelievable castle designed to help kids let their imaginations run wild so that they can really figure out what they would like their wish to be. While we were there, we learned that wishes can be anything. This one will stick with me forever: a gentleman shared the story of a child who only wanted to ride a school bus. That was his wish, to ride a school bus. His siblings would leave every day, and he wanted that to. He could have wished to go to Disney or anything else – heck, he could have wished to own a bus – but he simply wanted to ride the bus.
Another's child's wish really brought back a lot of memories for me. When I was six months old, I was burned and could not do a lot of the things that other kids could do. For a long time, I couldn't go outside and play in the dirt, and there was a wish that we heard about where a kid just wanted to play in the dirt but had never been able to because of a weak immune system. Make-A-Wish made it happen for him, they had a pile of dirt that was safe for him and he was out there burying cars and having a great time. I remember when I finally had a chance to go outside and play with my cars in the dirt. I remember what that felt like.
Through this experience with Make-A-Wish being on our Funny Car thanks to Terry Chandler, and having the kids in our hospitality area every weekend, I've learned something important about Make-A-Wish. They give these great kids a chance to get away from the daily struggles and from the sometimes hourly battle that we might never know in our entire lives. This program is amazing, and having these kids as part of our world is something that has become so important to all of us.
We all have our football, baseball, basketball, hockey teams we cheer for, and maybe that's our escape from reality sometimes. But these kids cheer for us and wow, that's really something. They cheer for us when they're here, they cheer for us when they're at home, and they cheer for us from their hospital beds. They're part of our team, and to know that we have their support and that they're watching us just makes us want to be that much better.
What's truly amazing is that yes, these past two years have been focused on Make-A-Wish, but for the past five years our team has had the opportunity to meet amazing kids associated with foundations like Alex's Lemonade Stand, Riley Hospital for Children, the Eli Seth Matthews Leukemia Foundation, and more. Plus, we have been honored to meet with numerous kids going through every day struggles that are in the crowd. I really feel that kids and families can see our pit area as a place where life's difficulties are not ignored, but rather they are accepted with open arms. One such case was in Seattle, when I had mentioned that I was burned severely on my right arm when I was six months old.
Gary from EF-65 introduced me to a father and son who were burned in a car wreck, and the father's arms were burned from pulling the boy from the car while it was still on fire. The boy was blessed to be alive and suffered burns over 90 percent of his body. His ears were missing, and most of his nose. I could tell as they walked towards our pit with a mutual friend that the burns were recent and their pain was rooted deeper than just the scars on the outside. I prayed for guidance to say the right thing and not let myself get in the way of something special happening. We talked for close to 45 minutes about how everyone has scars – but the truly special ones, the ones that God has a plan for, are able to wear those scars on the outside.
I truly feel that my being burned at a young age was the chapter where my life truly began to take shape, and perhaps it was for that very moment with that family. We talked about plans for the future and turning a tragedy into a victory. I was able to give this child advice on how to get through dealing with scars – both mentally and physically. He renewed a passion of mine to work with burn patients this off-season at Shriners Children's Hospital and Riley Hospital for Children.
We said our emotional goodbyes, and I would like to think that we were both forever-changed by our meeting. I look forward to getting updates on this child's journey, and I know that he is going to do great things.
The kids that we have met are so incredibly strong in such difficult times, and their struggles are ones that most people will never understand. Paul Matthews, a father I met in Reading last year, lost his son to Leukemia. He reminds me all the time he will always fight to find the cure, and I pray everyday that someday we will talk about cancer in past tense. As the medical field works towards that, I am fully convinced that the cure for a lot of the world's problems rest in these amazing kids. Their spirit, courage, and heart are far greater than their struggles.
Thanks to Terry Chandler, many lives have been changed for the better. Not just because she brought these kids to the races, but because we have all been able to form a bond with them. I wish everyone could witness this woman interact with these awesome kids. To them, she is Aunt Terry, and the moment they see her, their eyes absolutely glow with excitement. They leave the racetrack, but those kids never leave Terry's heart. She genuinely loves and cares for every one of them as if they were her own. Each weekend, fans come to the pit asking for her, simply so that they can say 'thank you.' What she has done for our sport is bigger than NHRA. It's literally making an impact on the world.
I have never claimed to be the smartest guy in the world, but I do know that it's so important to learn from great people when you have the chance. I hope Terry realizes how much she has taught us all, and how she has changed many people in the world just by being herself. These kids and Terry are the real heroes of our racing story, and I, for one, can say my life will be forever-changed in a positive way just by knowing them.
I think we can all agree that the world needs more Terry Chandlers – and I'm not referring to her financial donations, I'm talking about her heart. We may not be blessed with the same resources as others, but we do all have one major thing in common: time. Just a bit of donated time can change someone's life. Every day, Terry pours her heart and soul into these charities, and she is leaving her mark on society. It opens our eyes to the fact that we, likewise, could take an hour to volunteer at a food pantry, hospital, or Habitat for Humanity – or even make a simple phone call to someone you know is going through a rough time. I feel we sometimes underestimate the value of a caring heart, friendly smile, and a genuine 'how can I help' attitude. We don't know the struggles of others, and we take for granted that things will fix themselves.
I subscribe to the theory that these children will be permanently imprinted with Terry's positive energy and generosity. From there, they will grow up and pass that along to others. As time goes on, Terry's amazing heart will be passed on, like a ripple effect on a lake, touching more people than she ever could have dreamed of.
With nephew Zane and Grandma Edith, who got to see me race nitro for the first time.
Last week's Four-Wide Nationals was an interesting adventure, you could say. There was plenty of good news to come out of that race for us – mainly, we moved up to No. 4 from sixth in the Funny Car points, and we sure like that. But we also made it to the final round for the first time this year, and we continued our string of advancing from the first round. Our team has the only Funny Car that hasn't lost first round this season, and that's out of all the Funny Cars, not just Don Schumacher Racing. Antron Brown is the only DSR Top Fuel dragster that hasn't lost first round, and he is one of only two drivers in the category to have won every first-round match so far this season (Richie Crampton is the only other driver to have that momentum on raceday). Antron is looking pretty good with two final rounds and two semi's, plus now the points lead. They're a great team.
I think the key to getting to where we want to be will be continued consistency. That is very valuable throughout the season. You want to be good, but you don't want to be good and then bad. I'll take consistency over the highs and lows because that is what will pay dividends in the long run. If you can maintain that throughout the season and do well at most of the events, like not going out first round, that's going to be very important.
You can look at that two ways: you have the pressure that you don't want to lose first round because you haven't all year, or you can look at it as a confidence builder. "We haven't lost all year first round, we know we're going to win this round." I try to see it from the confident point of view, and we'll just keep doing what we're doing and going rounds.
We were really happy to make it to the final round there in Charlotte. I know our sponsor, Terry Chandler, was very happy too. Not only were we in the final round, but Jack Beckman and the Infinite Hero car that she also sponsors had made it up there to run for the trophy, and they did it. Congratulations to Jack and his whole team – it's been a long time coming for them, and it was good to see them win.
Our great team sponsor standing between lanes earlier this year in Phoenix. With her nephews Shane and Jonathan Gray both racing Pro Stock and the fact that she sponsors our Make-A-Wish Funny Car team and the Infinite Hero car driven by Jack Beckman, she is often finding herself standing in the middle on Sunday. Not a bad place to be!
It felt like our day, to be honest. Things were going our way. We hadn't performed well, but there we were in the final round. Then we hit the throttle and to have the thing smoke the tires so soon was a let down. I was ready to hit the throttle again and pedal, but I'm glad I didn't. Something didn't feel right, and the next thing I knew the thing turned left. The top of the fuel pump had come loose. Instinctively, you try to recover the car, but it was very strange trying to figure out from the inside what was happening. I was trying to diagnose it as I was correcting and working to keep the car under control. At one point, it felt like maybe the rear wheel had come off or something, and I was just trying to keep it out of the wall and off its roof. The car was making such violent moves and sliding around almost worse than being on ice – and believe me, growing up in Iowa and the ice and snow, I know what that feels like. There was zero control at some points, and a lot of people thought I was pedaling, but the truth is that I never hit the throttle again. As the car leans out from running out of fuel, it speeds up, so it was gaining speed and getting more and more out of control. It was definitely a handful, and I was using every instinct that I had. There were many times in those few moments where I didn't think it was going to happen – I really thought it was going over on its roof. That was the most I've ever had to drive a car in one run, and with the least amount of results.
It was a little nerve wracking for a while, but once I turned off the end of the track and climbed in the tow vehicle and the guys handed me the time slip, the nerves went away and the anger came up. I had the best light out of all four drivers. Jack's guys did a great job, but who knows what the outcome would have been. It's disappointing when something like that happens, but in the long run you have to be thankful because it could have been a lot worse. As frustrating as it was, you take the good and move on. Now we get to go to Las Vegas and hopefully go one step further.
Before I go, I wanted to mention two things. First, it was very cool that the NHRA race was live on ESPN on Sunday. My buddy, former MLB player Aaron Rowland, was texting me as he was watching and telling me how he was looking forward to being in Vegas. It was great that the show was live, and I think it's cool to see how it actually does work. It's just that much more exciting for the fans watching at home, and I'm looking forward to the next time we get to have NHRA live on Sunday. That would be a special one to win, wouldn't it?
I'll leave you with this. We had a nice interview with Deb Williams from the Charlotte Observer at the Four-Wide race, and my nephew Gage and the whole family were there. She did a really neat story about Gage and how coming on tour with us in the summer is incentive for him to do better in school. If you'd like to read the story, it's here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/nascar-auto-racing/thatsracin/article17240180.html.
Right now, Gage has all A's and only two B's. I may be in trouble.
That's it from here for now. See you out there!
I haven't had a lot of time home lately, and of course that's not anything new. This past weekend, though, I got to do something that really made me happy: fly to North Carolina for my nephew Gage's birthday. It's hard to believe, but he is actually going to be 10 years old. Time sure does fly.
I got in on Friday and had a surprise at the airport because my dad was there to meet me with my Grandma Edith. She has been down from Iowa visiting with my parents this winter, and it was great to get to see her. She even came to Mooresville Dragway for Gage's birthday on Saturday.
Gage is a great kid, and all he wanted for his birthday was to have a few of his friends out to the racetrack with him and run his Jr. Dragster. I'm glad I was there for that, but his dad Mike and my dad Tom Sr. have him covered in the crew chief department. I'm more like a crew guy than anything, and it's something I really enjoy. I got to be in charge of the GoPro this time, which was actually pretty fun.
My birthday present to Gage was a new seat for his Jr. Dragster. I had a seat poured for him a couple of years ago, but he has grown so much that he didn't really fit into it anymore. So I took care of that in Indy and now he has a Bald Spot poured seat that fits him perfectly.
Our friend and teammate Antron Brown has kids who race Jr. Dragsters, and he was kind enough to give Gage a carburetor for his car. This weekend was kind of a test-and-tune to get all the bugs worked out on the Jr. Dragster so that it will be real consistent when it comes time to race. It looks like Gage is going to be just fine.
One cool thing about Grandma Edith being there was that now she has been able to see three generations on the racetrack. I'm excited because she's going to come to the 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway, and I think it might actually be only the second time she's ever been to a national event. I think it's probably been since the U.S. Nationals in Indy in 2008.
We're going to have a little family get together before I leave for Gainesville and have dinner and celebrate Gage's birthday one last time. You know, this is the first time I've ever been able to be in North Carolina for his birthday, and it's been really special.
Although I will tell you that ever since I got here, all I've heard about is that in three weeks we'll be at the 4-Wide. He's definitely looking forward to getting back to the track, and we're still in negotiations for his summer vacation trip to come on the road with us. His comment last night was that he only has two B's on his report card and the rest are all A's. That's not bad, but it's not quite the deal we have worked out. Keep pushing, buddy! All A's. That's the goal.
Before I close out this blog, I wanted to touch on the fact that this weekend in Gainesville takes us back a year ago and John Collins' first race with us as a crew chief. It wasn't a bad weekend, and it laid the groundwork for the heights that he would excel to throughout the year. For the first race on his own, we think he did a darn good job. He has made so much progress since then, and I can remember that first race and watching him start the car for the first time. His hands were shaking as he was pouring the gas in it, and we were probably a little more conservative than we are now. John isn't conservative like that anymore, and he has become very confident in his own abilities, just as we have. It's unbelievable what a year has done for him, and we're proud to have John Collins as our crew chief.
That's all for now from here. We'll see you at the racetrack.
By the way: Gage's actual birthday is on Tuesday, so if you see him around – be sure to wish him HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
We finished third in 2014, and overall, I would definitely say it was a great year. As a team, we were really happy and now, we're looking forward to the season ahead. Of course we were looking forward to the off-season and catching up on a few things, but now it's almost time to go racing again, and looking back it seems like there really wasn't much "off" in the "off-season." It went by so fast.
As soon as the NHRA season ended, I went to Australia to race, and then I sat in for my DSR teammate Ron Capps to test his car in West Palm. After that it was back to Indy to go to the PRI show, and then on to Tennessee to film PerformanceTV, then Christmas, then New Years, and now, oh my, it's the week to go testing.
The guys on my Make-A-Wish team started to work on getting ready for 2015 as soon as we got home from the last race of the year in Pomona. We actually built a new front-half for our Dodge Charger R/T, and we kept last year's car intact and put it upstairs to use as a spare. With our other car, we put a new front end on it and used a little different design based on things that we've learned over the season. The guys were on that as soon as we got home. They've been busy for a lot of days this winter, and we're sure hoping that's going to pay off come testing again in West Palm and then the Winternationals.
For me, I've almost been busier in the off-season than I was when we were racing, and it seems like I've been home a lot less, too. By the time I returned home from my parent's house in North Carolina after Christmas, I had only been home 11 days since Oct. 28.
Racing in Australia was a lot of fun. I flew down to drive the L.A. Hooker Nostalgia Funny Car for Graeme Cowin, and it was great to get that invitation. I had driven a Nostalgia car here in the U.S. before, but never that one, so it was really something I was looking forward to. I ended up having a blast. I made a lot of good friends while racing down there last year, and it was a nice opportunity to go see a lot of those folks, do some racing, and then it was even more fun because we won the race.
Really, the only break I got this off-season was after the Australia race when I had the chance to visit Perth with racing friends Anthony Begley and Damian Harris and another friend, Steve Flynn. We went out on the ocean in a boat, stepped back in time, kicked back, and pretty much did nothing besides get sunburned.
Since then, I've been busy filming PerformanceTV for Velocity Channel, and luckily we film mostly during fall and winter so I'm able to do that between racing and everything else that goes on. With all of that, it was nice to be able to relax and visit with my family over Christmas.
We had a great holiday, and I was able to spend time with my nephews, Gage and Zane. Gage, of course, wanted to negotiate another road trip with his uncle for next season. He not only wants to go to Chicago and Norwalk again but also on the Western Swing. We bargained and I told him if he gets straight A's, he can go on the Western Swing. He said, 'Well, what if there is one B+?' I told him we'd have to talk if that would happen.
While I was down there in North Carolina with the family, we even got to spend a little time working on Gage's Jr. Dragster. I built him a custom seat, but he's grown so much that he has almost grown out of it. I brought it back home with me, and I'm going to try to see if I can cut it out and trim it to see if I can give him a little more room for the season.
Christmas sort of launched a time of change for me, too. I asked for a juicer, and Santa (my parents) brought it. I got the idea watching a documentary called Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead that I should try the juicing diet, and I was a little nervous about it, but I thought I'd give it a shot. So far, it seems like a pretty good program. I started juicing on January 2nd and I've got to be honest, it's very hard to stick to it. It doesn't taste as good as what I normally have in my diet, that's for sure. It's a little bit like drinking grass out of your lawnmower bag, to tell you the truth, but I've been experimenting with different recipes and I don't know if I'm just getting used to it or better at it, but there are a couple that haven't been too bad. What's kept me going is the positive results that I've seen in a short period of time. I'm going to continue until we leave for testing, and then I think I'm going to work it into my regular diet.
Sunday we leave for West Palm to test, and I'm excited to get back in the Make-A-Wish Funny Car, get back out there with the guys and get back to the racetrack. We're excited to see how this new chassis drives and to get our momentum going for the 2015 season. I'm also excited about the new Dodge Charger R/T body. I was able to test it a couple times last season, but I'm really looking forward to being in there full time. As the driver, I'm not too worried about it being any faster than the last body – the visibility from the cockpit is so much better it's incredible. I think it's a great change.
After testing, I'll fly right to Tennessee to film more for PerformanceTV, then it's a week and a half off and time to go to the Winternationals. It's pretty darn cold here in Indy right now, and I'm excited to get to Pomona for more reason than one.
Thanks to our wonderful sponsor Terry Chandler, we're able to keep this team going. We're all very thankful to Terry for giving us the opportunity to do this again. We did so well our first year together; I can't wait to see what we can do in 2015.