DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Hans Reelick said it began with a phone call to his friend, NASCAR president Mike Helton.
Reelick, a local real estate broker whose son, Eugene, lived in Bethel, Conn., near Newtown, reached out to Helton last month with a simple request. Reelick wanted his son to bring a little boy to the 55th Daytona 500 as NASCAR’s special guest. Reelick said his son’s family was close with a family that suffered an unspeakable loss in the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School Dec. 14.
The boy, whose younger 6-year-old sister was among the 26 victims, was having great difficulty coping with his grief and Reelick thought it would be a much-needed diversion to soak up the sights and sounds of the Great American Race.
“I called Mike and asked if we could bring him, with no press around or anything, and take him around the track for a behind-the-scenes tour,’’ Reelick said. “Mike said he had an idea on something and would get back to me.’’
After a week or so, Helton called Reelick back.
“Mike said, ‘I think I can do one better,’ ’’ Reelick recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘How about if we get you a car with the town’s name on it and run it in the Daytona 500?’ ’’
Reelick was floored.
“It’s absolutely amazing from that phone call came this,’’ Reelick said last Thursday as he stood beside the gleaming green and white No. 26 Toyota, with a hood emblazoned with Newtown’s town logo, which was encircled by 26 stars. “For the 26 angels we lost,’’ Reelick said.
The Sandy Hook School Support Fund Toyota, which will carry a decal “Newtown to 80888’’ encouraging race fans to make a $10 donation, will be fielded by car owner Brandon Smith of Swan Racing and driven by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip in Sunday’s race.
Both owner and driver were enlisted by Helton when the NASCAR president got the idea to expand the simple request into a tribute for Newtown, to not only raise funds, but awareness of the long-term healing process facing the grief-stricken community.
With the full might of Helton’s position supporting the cause, it was clear it was not an average, run-of-the-mill, NASCAR charity drive.
Smith said Helton first approached him with his idea during his first driver/owner meeting a few weeks ago at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C.
“Mike Helton slaps me on the shoulder when I walk in [to the meeting] and says, ‘I need to talk to you after we’re finished here,’ ’’ Smith recalled. “My first thought was, ‘What have I done wrong?’ I was extremely nervous and thought about leaving the meeting, but decided to stay.
“Following the meeting, Mike sat me down and said that he had an idea of running the 26 car in the Daytona 500 to represent the 20 children and six adults who had lost their lives in the tragedy back in December in Newtown, Connecticut.
“He asked me to think about whether or not we could be a part of it at Swan Racing, and I told Mike that, as long as my sponsors were on board, ‘We’re in,’ ’’ Smith said.
So instead of running the No. 30 Toyota driven by David Stremme, Swan Racing will field the No. 26. Waltrip said his own Toyotas at Michael Waltrip Racing will also bear the same “Newtown to 80888’’ decal.
A week before the car was unveiled and NASCAR’s charitable drive was made public, a contingent of NASCAR officials that included Helton, Smith, Waltrip and NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France flew to Newtown, Conn., and held an emotional meeting in private with town officials, first responders, and several of the families of the victims to share their plans.
“When we walked into that room, and seven of the families that lost children in that shooting were sitting on the front row looking at you, first of all, that was very hard to keep your composure,’’ Waltrip said. “But as we spoke, those crying faces turned to smiles.
“They’re huge NASCAR fans up in that part of the country, and they got to realize that they’re going to have a car in the Daytona 500 and it lit ’em up. It made me so proud that I was there to be part of such a special announcement.’’
But Waltrip said the meeting left a lasting impression on him. “I walked into their world, spent three hours there, and walked out, but I left part of me there,’’ he said.
France said he was similarly moved by the meeting, so much so he and his wife Amy pledged $50,000 to jump-start the campaign. France said his family’s donation would be matched by The NASCAR Foundation.
“That was probably the toughest day, in one respect, that I’ve ever been a part of,’’ said France. “Just looking in the eyes of the families, understanding the first responders — everybody in the whole community in a packed room — I said to them, ‘We’re fathers and mothers first.’
“I remember the call — somebody had called me back in December about the incident — and it just takes your breath away,’’ France said. “So when the idea came to us, and Mike Helton called and said, ‘Look, here’s an opportunity to do something really impactful,’ not only raise a fair amount of money, but also to give the families and everybody in Newtown something to cheer for, something to look forward to — that’s what the Daytona 500 and the No. 26 car [are doing].
“It’s the right thing, and hopefully, it’ll make a difference.’’
Said Reelick, “NASCAR is truly a family. It’s a question of generosity and compassion and that’s what NASCAR has. In a climate where a lot of corporations have lost that compassion, NASCAR has shown that it still has it.’’