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Column: Delight of go-kart race translates to children in need

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SPICELAND — We live in a day and age where everything “goes viral” — with social media turning an odd video into an overnight sensation.

But long before Mark Zuckerberg became a multimillionaire, racecar driver John Andretti was quietly putting together a charity event that would become as much of a late-summer staple in Indiana as the Brickyard 400 itself — the Race for Riley.

The premise was simple — allow people to race go-karts in heats for the opportunity to race against Andretti himself, with the proceeds going to Riley Hospital for Children.

With radio host Dave Wilson using WIBC’s airwaves during the race’s infancy to promote the event, it has morphed into a major event on the calendar each year, a nearly weeklong event that brings funding to the Indianapolis hospital.

“Every year for the last several years, we’ve set a record, but it’s always been by a little bit,” Andretti said. “This year, we’re going to blow it out of the water. For sure, we’re going to go over the $2 million mark in total donations since we started, and we’re going to break over $300,000 this year. That’s a big, big step in the right direction.”

For the Brownsburg native — John is the son of Mario Andretti’s twin brother Aldo, and now lives in North Carolina — it’s an opportunity to give back to a cause and also to raise awareness for the hospital.

The racing community often chips in to help. Several IndyCar and NASCAR luminaries — past and present — have made appearances, and donate items. On Wednesday, Simona di Silvestro auctioned off her race helmet from Sunday’s IndyCar race in Edmonton for Riley’s burn center.

“It’s one of those things where the event is not one day, it’s not one thing, it’s everything. It starts Sunday night, going to all the sports shows, talking about it. It’s not about raising money, it’s about raising awareness for Riley,” Andretti said. “If you don’t know much about Riley, it’s probably a good thing because you haven’t had to have somebody go there, but eventually, you will know something about it, because they see 300,000 kids a year here, you’re bound to touch a lot of people.”

For the people attending — whether they be sponsors, media or those who are racing in heats for the opportunity to have a little bit of fun running on the same track as someone who has been in Victory Lane at Daytona and on the grid at Indianapolis — it also brings about a day of fun on the fast, twisty road course layout at Mark Dismore’s New Castle Motorsports Park.

The competitive juices come out as “amateur” drivers — well, mostly amateurs, as Andretti, WRTV’s Dave Furst and ESPN’s Vince Welch nearly always pace the field — discuss how to attack the corners and, essentially, how much bravery they can have slinging a kart going 40 mph around a tight 180-degree corner at speed in the open air while feeling the back end of the kart bouncing and slipping around on them.

Welch, whose son Dillon is an up-and-coming kart racer, was the winner among our media field. Daily Reporter photographer Tom Russo was sixth, I was ninth.  

Every corner is an exhilarating challenge as G-forces build and the hands hold onto the steering wheel for dear life while the tires bounce and slip behind you. The faster one goes through the corners, the more speed one has on the straights — it’s the bravery in those corners that separate the fast from the slow. On a road course, a driver essentially races the track as much as he races the field, because one slightly missed corner can scrub speed that will happen in several others.

What comes of the day is a respect for the bravery that racers show — and the talent they have — to sling cars going five times as fast around tracks that, too, are on a razor’s edge looking for every bit of speed.

But what also comes is the enjoyment of participating in an event that assists medical research and helps young people get better.

“It all started because I have an older brother and an older sister who are both Riley kids,” Andretti said. “That’s where it all started, and that’s way before I started being able to raise donations. It’s important. It’s great the community invests in Riley. I just want to give back to it and Riley is a great place.”

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