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Sunday, July 19, 2009

NASCAR is family entertainment

Whether it is on-track racing, cheering from the stands, or following racing on television, NASCAR is a sport the entire family can enjoy.

For many of the drivers, racing was a big part of their childhood. Ryan Newman for example, began running go-karts around a make-shift racetrack in the parking lot of his father's repair shop when he was barely old enough to walk. Jeff Gordon was one of many NASCAR drivers who raced quarter-midgets, open-wheel cars especially designed for kids between the ages of five and 16. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was weaned at the race track, as his father and grandfather were race car drivers before him. Like many professions, racing and turning wrenches is generational. Following in father's footsteps is traditional. And NASCAR's traditions are deeply rooted.

Parents can rest assured that NASCAR does not condone alcohol or drug use by drivers or team members. In fact, the sanctioning body of the sport recently suspended a driver -- Jeremy Mayfield -- indefinitely, for failing a drug test. While there is some question about the activity of some of the spectators who drink to excess and may behave inappropriately, that is not the fault of the sport. And that can occur in any sports venue. Unfortunately, bad behavior is reality. Children are to be protected from it and educated about it, not isolated.

Children and parents can look up to NASCAR drivers who are some of the most fan-friendly figures of any sport. Though drivers are similar to other celebrities, they are probably the most accessible to fans. They know that racing is a spectator sport. And they often refer to racing as 'a show.' Drivers participate in autograph sessions and fan-appreciation days, as well as just mingling at the track where they can get up close and personal with those who admire them or follow their careers.

There is no doubt that NASCAR drivers are well-paid, but they put their money to good use as most drivers engage in philanthropic efforts. That makes them good role models for kids. Many drivers give back as they contribute to worthy causes, such as that which was started by Kyle and Patti Petty -- the Victory Junction, a children's camp that enriches the lives of kids with chronic health conditions. It was built in honor of the Pettys' son Adam. It was Adam's dream to build such a camp, but he was killed in a race-related accident in 2000. His parents built the camp to fulfill their son's dream.

The Pettys are not the exception. NASCAR drivers and team owners are regular contributors to philanthropic organizations. Just a few of the many foundations started by those involved with NASCAR include: race team owner Richard Childress and his wife Judy, who have started the Childress Institute for pediatric trauma; The Dale Jr. Foundation founded by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. focuses on youth resources to improve confidence, education and the opportunity to achieve; The Denny Hamlin Foundation works to ease the suffering of children with pediatric cancer and cystic fibrosis; the Jeff Gordon Foundation supports children battling cancer; the Ryan Newman Foundation educates and encourages the spay/neutering of pets and encourages adoption from animal shelters as well as teaching the importance of conservation. In addition to their own foundations focused on interests personal to them, many other activities include charity motorcycle and snowmobile rides, fishing tournaments, and many others.

Sports, like life has pros and cons about them. Yes, race car driving is dangerous. People have been killed and badly hurt, but that can also happen on the road in front of your house. In a family context, sports can be a good teaching tool for children. By observing sports-related activities, kids learn lessons that they can use throughout their lives. They learn competition, how to win and how to lose, teamwork, and a myriad other benefits that help them grow into healthy, competent adults. The lessons are all there. But sometimes it takes an observant parent to point them out. But isn't that what parents are for?