COLUMBUS – Chris Buescher didn’t just win a race last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The NASCAR Xfinity Series driver picked up a lifelong friendship as well.
That’s part of what makes the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 so special in racing.
“For us to be able to take kids from the hospital that are battling their own fights and bring them out to the race track and put them on the side of the car and give them the full experience that most people will never get to experience … it is very special to those kids and we love to be able to do it,” Buescher said. “It is one of the absolute most unique things that we do. It’s a very humbling experience at the same time.”
The Benner family of Morrow County became a part of Buescher’s life last summer during the run-up to the Mid-Ohio race as their 6-year-old Luke was paired with the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Buescher and the Benners made a real connection that weekend.
The leukenia survivor not only enjoyed the VIP experience the race weekend offered, but he and his family also were a part of the celebration for Buescher’s first in what was then called the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
“Luke coming on board last year was very cool to us,” Buescher said. “Nationwide Children’s Hospital not only sponsored the race but our car as well. To have Luke there as his first time as a patient champion and getting to take him to victory lane was absolutely awesome.”
It was no one-off, meet-and-greet deal, however. Later that season, the Benners traveled to Charlotte to watch Buescher race. This year, the Benners again took their three boys to see their fast friend compete in Michigan.
“It’s hard to describe, but it’s been awesome to keep up with him since that win,” the 22-year-old Buescher said. “He’s come to several races since. We’re trying to treat him as one of ours. He’s basically a crew member of our team now, him and his two brothers.”
And there will be another reunion when the series stops in Lexington on Aug. 14 and 15 for the third annual race.
“They’re only a few minutes from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, so we will be seeing them again and look forward to it,” Buescher said.
He’s not alone. Several drivers who have raced in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 in its first two years have similar experiences.
“They’ve formed these real relationships with these families and kids, and it carries on through the years,” Nationwide’s Sports Marketing Director Jim McCoy said. “It’s real and it’s pretty cool stuff. There are good stories and real relationships, and we want to celebrate these patient champions for all they’ve gone through.”
On Tuesday morning at COSI in Columbus, Buescher returned to the area to reveal his paint scheme for the race, which will include a photo of Mansfield’s William Schaefer on the side of his car. He also was introduced to some of the 2015 patient champions as representatives from Nationwide, the hospital and Mid-Ohio were on-hand to promote the August race.
As part of the program, patient champs asked Buescher about how fast he goes, why there are so many words on his car, whether he knows the M&M’s car and, of course, about crashes.
“We can’t wait to see you guys out there in August,” Mid-Ohio President and event moderator Craig Rust said. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s loud. For those of you who haven’t seen a race, once you see it live, you’ll want to go back. We look forward to hosting everybody out there.”
Fun is the operative word for all involved.
“We let kids be kids,” said Niki Shafer, vice president of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation. “They are adults in many ways with the conditions they are facing and the treatments they are going through, but they can leave it behind for a day and really just enjoy being a family.”
Once again, 10 patients of the hospital will be paired with 10 drivers in the race. They will be embedded with the teams, be a part of the pre-race drivers meeting, join in the pre-race ceremonies and enjoy the post-race celebrations.
But more will likely come from the experience for all involved.
“Both the drivers and their entire teams really inspire the families,” Shafer said. “They do have that deep connection and friendship. They are able to really stay in touch with the kids, and to me, that really speaks to the promise of where kids can go in their pursuit of a career in life. They are exposed to so many different avenues of the sport and the profession.”
It’s where a race can be won and a friendship born.
If You Go
•What: NASCAR Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200
•When: Aug. 14 and 15
•Where: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
•Cost: $50 to $60; kids age 12 and younger are free.
•TV: NBC Sports Network
•FYI: MidOhio.com, NASCAR.com, 800-MID-OHIO