NASCAR: Generosity in the Sport Is as Good as Winning

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2013

FORT WORTH, TX - DECEMBER 07:  Texas Scottish Rite Hospital of Dallas Vice President of Development Stephanie Brigger (2nd R) accepts the Maj. General Thomas Sadler Speedway Children's Charities Founder's Grant for $149,000 at Texas Motor Speedway on December 7, 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

I'm fortunate to have a number of pipelines to get feedback from NASCAR fans.

In addition to my work for, I also do a lot of on-air host work for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (I'll be on again this Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to Noon ET), am active on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, and write for a number of other freelance clients.

Be it a tweet, email, phone call or any other medium of communication, I love to take the pulse of NASCAR fans, to find out what excites them or, conversely, bugs them.

Sure, there's the invariable complaints about high ticket prices and the like, or that some drivers make too much money or are selfish and standoffish (usually heard after a driver ignores an autograph request).

But for the most part, one thing I've learned over the last quarter-century of covering motorsports—particularly NASCAR—is that fans aren't the only ones who have big hearts or dig deep into their wallets to be part of the sport.

It's with that in mind that I thought I'd end 2012 and start 2013 with a feel-good story that is not told nearly enough. I'm not looking for glory or sucking up to anyone with this column—it comes straight from the heart.

Drivers may be booed or criticized sometimes for what they do on the racetrack, but I challenge anyone to find a pro sport in the U.S. whose star athletes are more generous or giving than those in NASCAR, particularly Sprint Cup drivers.

Sure, a big-time NFL quarterback may have a charitable foundation, or a Major League Baseball  all-star may have a favorite cause or charity that he likes to give to.

But across the board, generosity seems to have no bounds when it comes to NASCAR drivers. In fact, I'll issue yet another challenge: find me one star driver in the sport who doesn't have either his own foundation or is not deeply involved in some type of cause or activism designed to help sick, at-risk or underprivileged children and adults, or perhaps has a passion to help animals from being victims of cruelty or being stuck in ungodly conditions such as puppy mills.

Numerous NASCAR drivers and team owners have literally raised tens of millions of dollars for their foundations or charities. Yet almost to the man, those same drivers, owners and the like shy away from recognition of their efforts. They don't want glory or pats on the back; they do what they do because it's the right thing to do for them. They've been blessed with great careers, big paychecks and millions of adoring fans, so why not give back?

In fact, I've seen drivers smile bigger and have an even bigger jump in their step by virtue of some of the charitable things they do than if they had just won a race.

Over the years, I've been made aware of a number of drivers with their own foundations or charities, but upon doing research for this story, even I was a bit surprised at how pervasive the generosity of drivers in Sprint Cup has become in recent years.

I apologize if I miss anyone on the following list, but there are literally dozens of individuals that need to be recognized for their giving while also trying to stay out of the spotlight and focus it instead on those who need help so much:

Among them:

Tony Stewart: One of the most giving drivers in the sport, Stewart has raised millions of dollars for charity. And while many people credit Kyle Petty and wife Patti as the founders of Victory Junction Gang Camp, it's not very well known that Stewart was also one of the original co-founders of the camp. Also, Stewart has raised over a million dollars for charity from the noted Prelude to the Dream exhibition race at his Eldora Speedway, which will host its first-ever Camping World Truck Series race in mid-2013.

Kurt and Kyle Busch: Say what you want about the Busch brothers, but their philanthropic reach extends far. Several years ago, Kurt gave over $1 million to construct the Kurt Busch Superdome, an indoor sports facility at Victory Junction Gang Camp. Kyle, meanwhile, is deeply involved in helping at-risk kids and youth homes in several major cities, including his hometown of Las Vegas. The Busch brothers may have their haters, but when it comes to the kind of giving and generosity they have, it's hard to hate them even one miniscule bit.

Hermie and Elliott Sadler, as well as Jamie McMurray: All three have their own respective foundations to help in research, treatment and hopefully the eventual elimination of autism. I've seen all three at events supporting their favorite cause, and you can just see the passion in their eyes. McMurray has also raised a substantial amount of money to help victims of his hometown in Joplin, Mo., that was devastated by a killer tornado in 2011.

Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle: Both drivers and their wives are extremely passionate about not only caring for and rescuing at-risk animals (primarily dogs and cats), but also lend help to neutering/spaying efforts and humane societies, as well. Newman also is a significant fundraiser for the Rich Vogler Scholarship Fund, honoring the late sprint and midget car driver who was tragically killed in a 1990 race. Biffle also is involved in helping members of the military and veterans, as well.

Juan Pablo Montoya: Juan and wife Connie formed the Formula Smiles Foundation a couple of years ago, and it has already had a significant impact in helping underprivileged youth in Montoya's native Colombia.

Brad Keselowski: Long before he won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, Keselowski and his family established the Checkered Flag Foundation, which supports active members of the military, veterans, police/fire/EMS first responders and their families.

Kasey Kahne: His foundation supports a number of causes, including chronically ill kids, their families and also disadvantaged youth across the country.

Jimmie Johnson: The five-time Cup champ is another driver who is a big supporter of Victory Junction Gang Camp (he donated funds to build the "Jimmie Johnson Victory Lanes" bowling alley at the camp). He also is active in the Lowes Toolbox for Education and a variety of other causes. All proceeds of Johnson's new self-published book, "On The Road" are also earmarked to charity.

Sam Hornish Jr.: His foundation funds a number of causes including a senior citizen's center in his hometown of Defiance, Ohio (in memory of his grandmother). Hornish is also active in Special Olympics.

Kevin Harvick: His Helping Hand Foundation has also been a big supporter at Victory Junction Gang Camp. Harvick also personally funds a scholarship at the California State University branch campus in his hometown of Bakersfield. Harvick may show a tough exterior on the racetrack, but he's one of the more giving drivers out there.

Denny Hamlin: The Virginia native's foundation has a special focus on helping children with Cystic Fibrosis, as well as raises funds for ongoing research to one day find a cure for the debilitating disease.

Jeff Gordon: Gordon is one of the most giving drivers in the sport. He's raised over $7 million to help underprivileged youth across the country, established the Jeff Gordon's Children's Hospital in Concord, N.C., and is heavily involved in Make-A-Wish. In the last few years, Gordon has also become quite active in raising funds for ill and underprivileged youth in third-world countries.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR's most popular driver for the last 10 years is also very popular when it comes to raising money and giving back to the sport, particularly those in need. Earnhardt has followed in the philanthropic shoes of his late father, who privately and quietly raised and gave countless millions to charity. Junior has done likewise, giving substantial amounts to Victory Junction Gang Camp, Make-A-Wish and numerous other charities.

Speedway Children's Charities: The pet project of billionaire and Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, SCC has raised millions to support numerous charities dedicated to helping ill, at-risk and underprivileged youth.

The NASCAR Foundation: NASCAR's official charitable arm, it supports numerous charities and established NASCAR Day several years ago to further its outreach and fundraising efforts. It has raised over $15 million in recent years. It also has helped a variety of other causes, including efforts in the memory of late driver Kenny Irwin, who was killed in 2000.

Among other drivers and team owners that also raise considerable and untold amounts of money for charities are Bobby Labonte (various causes, including Victory Junction Gang Camp), team owner Richard Childress (heavily vested in the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center), Jeff Burton (longtime advocate of Duke Children's Hospital), Regan Smith, Scott Speed and Carl Edwards.

There's more: Clint Bowyer (has given extensively to help residents of his hometown of Emporia, Kan., including a multi-million dollar community center), Martin Truex Jr. (Teddy Bear Campaign and several other causes including helping victims of Hurricane Sandy), David Reutimann (various fund-raising causes), Marcos Ambrose (several charities in his naive Australia), Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard (part of a broader charitable program through his father's Menard Home Improvement Centers), Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Casey Mears, Brian Vickers, Danica Patrick and several other drivers.

Like Richard Childress, fellow team owner Rick Hendrick has also been a longtime philanthropist, giving to numerous charities, including Victory Junction Gang Camp. Other team owners, including Michael Waltrip, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs have also raised significant amounts for charities and a variety of causes.

And, of course, The King, Richard Petty, has worked tirelessly to support Victory Junction Gang Camp, which was founded in the memory of Petty's grandson (and Kyle and Patti Petty's son), Adam, who was killed at the age of 19 in a crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

If I missed anyone, again, I apologize. But the huge list of drivers and team owners that both give substantial amounts of their own money and also raise funds for charity is just another indication of how generous the overall NASCAR family truly is.

So, the next time someone complains about greedy or money-hungry drivers or team owners in NASCAR, show them this column. It might open their eyes as much as so many countless acts of charity open the eyes and bring smiles to the faces of ill or down on their luck folks that are the recipients of that generosity.

And trust me, for as good as it feels to do something like winning a race, you can't put a price on NASCAR's generosity. It's the only time where everyone—both those that give and those that receive—comes out a winner.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski. Also, tune in this Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to Noon ET on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Ch. 90, as I host "The Front Stretch" for the vacationing Pat Patterson.