- NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip is racing a special car in Sunday's Daytona 500
- The car's number will be changed to 26 for the 26 victims of the Newtown massacre
- There will be a call to action for fans to text "Newtown to 80888" to make a $10 donation
- The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's biggest race and the start of the 2013 season
Engines rev up Sunday for the start of the 2013 NASCAR season with the 55th running of the Daytona 500, stock car racing's biggest event. But for one driver, the race is about more than a possible trip to victory lane. Michael Waltrip is racing for Sandy Hook.
The events of December 14 left most of America stunned and clutching their children a little tighter. The loss of 20 children and six employees at the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school united people in grief across the globe, many of whom had an immediate desire to help.
NASCAR President Mike Helton was among those. He knew that his stock car racing family had to act. Two-time Daytona winner Waltrip said Helton called him up and said, "I've got something I think we should do for the Daytona 500."
Helton, Waltrip and Swan Racing -- the team Waltrip will drive for in Sunday's race -- had a private meeting with Newtown officials, community leaders, first responders and victims' families in early February. At a February 14 event in Daytona Beach, Florida, it was announced that Waltrip's car number 30 would be changed to 26 and his colors would be green and white to honor those lost.
There will also be a message on the car, "Text Newtown to 80888," for fans to make a $10 donation to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund, which was established by the United Way of Western Connecticut and Newtown Savings Bank. NASCAR says 100% of the funds raised will go directly to help meet the needs of the Newtown community.
Those needs are two-fold, according to Waltrip. First, he said he hopes having a personal connection to the race will give the townspeople a boost, even if momentarily. A city official "told me that after that meeting she'd seen smiles on some people's faces that she hadn't seen since the devastating events of December 14. So on Sunday for a little bit of time at least, I think the town can escape reality and enjoy one of the greatest sporting events in the world with something to root for," Waltrip said.
"And secondly who knows what kind of therapy and recovery the children and schoolteachers and the people of the town will need going forward. So it's going to be a lot of money for counseling and helping people through that day and who knows what all the money could be used for -- a memorial, a new school. ... We just want to make sure that there's always money there to help people in need."
Waltrip also owns a racing team, Michael Waltrip Racing, and all three of his drivers entered in Sunday's race -- Clint Bowyer in No. 15, Mark Martin in No. 55 and Martin Truex Jr. in No. 56 -- will have decals on their cars to support the cause. "We're ready to go racing, ready to put some smiles on faces and raise money," Waltrip said, who also is tweeting information about the campaign drive.
Donations have already started coming in, Waltrip said. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France and his wife, Amy, pledged a personal donation of $50,000, and the NASCAR Foundation has matched that donation, according to Waltrip.
"Looking out at a room of smiling faces amidst the aftermath of a horrible tragedy was very powerful," France said. "It hit me that the NASCAR industry and our passionate fan base have an unbelievable opportunity to rally around this cause and make a huge difference."
Waltrip is counting on fans when he climbs into his car Sunday afternoon, and he said he has faith his extended family will come through for the people of Newtown.
"I think you see it all the time and that's the reason why we do it because they (fans) respond, they support. They want to help worthy causes as well so we rely on that 75 million people in our fan base to step up when we have a great cause. And that's what makes it so special that the fans really appreciate what we do and they really want to be a part of it."
He added, "Driving the No. 26 Sandy Hook School Support Fund Toyota is like nothing I have ever been part of in my NASCAR career. It will be an emotional week knowing that we have the potential to do so much good for the Newtown community. I'm racing for a reason."
Donations also can be made online or by mail:
Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main St., Newtown, CT, 06470