Raindrops race down the tarp covering the NF Heroes and their families as they wait for the start of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. In previous years these children, their families, fans and supporters, were able to walk the Children's Tumor Foundation #14 car from the garage to the start grid prior to the race, but this year has been nothing like previous years.
This is the fourth year the Foundation has partnered with a racing team to sponsor a car in the Rolex 24, the nation's most prestigious endurance auto race, as part of its Racing4Research program. The race team handles the logistics and provides the crew, the drivers pay their own way, and the Foundation raises funds and awareness for neurofibromatosis (NF), a progressive disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerves throughout the body. The car features the names of NF Heroes -- children throughout the country who everyday live with the challenges of NF -- who, along with their families, hold fundraising events throughout the year for NF research then join the Foundation in Daytona for the Rolex 24.
The previous three years the Children's Tumor Foundation partnered with Farnbacher Loles Racing, but on December 5, 2009, less than 2 months before the race, that partnership dissolved along with Farnbacher Loles amidst an alleged Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Farnbacher Loles' co-founder and principle owner Greg Loles.
"We had children and their families from across the country attending the race and we were gearing up for an amazing weekend," said Children's Tumor Foundation Executive Director George Orfanakos. "Suddenly we had no race team, and no car, meaning no money for NF research."
The story is frighteningly familiar: wealthy financial advisor, pillar of the community, philanthropist, beloved family man, and then, overnight, nothing. Those left in the wake of these titanic collapses are forced to either regroup and rebuild or fold-up shop and walk away.
For a program built around the country's biggest endurance race, walking away was not an option.
"The Children's Tumor Foundation created Racing4Research for the Rolex 24 because of the parallels between endurance auto racing and NF. During a 24 hour race the car faces many obstacles and has to overcome incredible challenges. Living with NF is about overcoming the challenges the disorder presents, there is great uncertainty of what the next turn will bring, but the Children's Tumor Foundation is here for our NF Heroes, working for them, and supporting vital research to make sure they win their endurance race," Orfanakos said.
After the intial shock, Orfanakos and the Foundation regrouped and reassessed the seemingly limited options. Farnbacher Loles had been extremely generous to the Foundation, providing a uniquely sweet deal in a sport that frequently features charity racing cars but rarely at no expense to the charities. The Children's Tumor Foundation, keenly aware of limiting expenses, could not afford for funds to be diverted from NF research to sponsor a race car. But what would happen to their NF Heroes, their families and their plans to spend the last weekend in January at Daytona?
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
"Jill reached out to me, explained the predicament the Children's Tumor Foundation was in, explained the Racing4Research program, and its purpose. I was on board before before the phone call was over," said Gordon Friedman, president of Autometrics. "Seeing these kids here, having the time of their lives, and knowing that we've helped raise funds on their behalf has made this one of the great racing experiences of my career. We're honored to be able to race for these NF Heroes."
At 3:30 on Sunday, 24 hours after the beginning of the Rolex 24, the Children's Tumor Foundation #14 car finished 15th in its class having completed 611 laps. The car was beaten up and broken down, duct tape held the drivers side door and hood together. The car didn't look pretty and it didn't finish first but it finished, and in the process helped raise more than $300,000 for research into treatments and a cure for NF.
The weather wasn't much better than when the race started, but the rain had stopped and things were looking a bit brighter.
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