NASCAR driver boosts vets' morale at 200 mph
CNN — Brad Keselowski is once again a contender in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but off the track he is championing a cause dear to his heart. Keselowski, known for hanging an American flag out his window whenever a victory lap is warranted, started the Checkered Flag Foundation to support anyone who has "sacrificed greatly for America." The foundation centers around the Race 2 Recovery program, which serves wounded veterans.
Several race weekends a year Keselowski and his foundation, run by former Navy Lt. Andrea Ross, work with local Veterans Affairs hospitals to bring vets and their families to the track for a VIP experience. Hospital staff recommends the honorees -- many amputees or in wheelchairs -- as either deserving of special praise or being in need of a morale boost. "A lot of our honorees haven't been out of the house in quite some time. So it's a great way to get them out and get them on their feet," Keselowski says. The highlight of the program happens after the race's final lap. When the grandstands empty out and race crews have headed home, Keselowski gets back behind the wheel for an extra day to give his honorees a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- a high-speed joy ride around the track.
"I believe in charity in action. I think it's very tempting for some people to maybe write a check and walk away feeling like they've done their good deed, but at some point somebody actually has to do the good deed," Keselowski says. He gets help from his Penske Racing teammate Parker Kligerman. Kligerman drives a second car for honorees' family members who also might feel the need for speed.
"I hope they take a glimpse of what we do but almost at the same time a glimpse of getting away from some tumultuous experience they've had as a veteran of war," Kligerman says. "And hopefully racing is something that they can become a fan of through this experience and have something to look forward to week in and week out."
Iraq war veteran Noah Galloway, who wasn't a NASCAR fan before the Birmingham VA connected him to the Checkered Flag Foundation, says Keselowski's program means a lot to him. "I think what the Checkered Flag Foundation is doing is incredible -- Brad having this organization, inviting veterans out to experience NASCAR events, but not only that. Here it is, Monday. He won yesterday's race. He was here this morning with us and driving us around the track," Galloway says. "He could want to just as easily either still be partying or be back on the road. But he's here with us, and I think that is incredible for all of us veterans to have someone show that much appreciation." One of the foundation's original honorees, Dustin Humphreys, says what Keselowski and his team did for him was so inspiring that he now gives back as a volunteer.
"It's changed my whole outlook on everything now. It's so easy to get depressed when you come back and you can't do the stuff you used to," Humphreys says. Like many of the men and women the foundation serves, Humphreys and Galloway are around the same age as Keselowski, a fact not lost on the 28-year-old racer. Keselowski says he realizes he could have just as easily been in their place. The cause became even more personal when he saw an old friend at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during NASCAR's tour to support the troops. His friend had been injured, and several soldiers in his unit had died in Iraq. "He just completely lacked any motivation to live," Keselowski says of his friend with whom he'd lost touch. "That was probably one of the key moments that made me feel like ... this was a cause that was worth something, to help guys like him get back going." Keselowski adds, "If we can be the difference in one person's life and prevent them from going through the trials and tribulations that a lot of our veterans have, whether it's becoming a recluse or worst case, suicide, if we can prevent one of those things from happening, I feel like we've been a success, and it's worth the effort."