Racing stars, fans help buy toys for abused kids

Olivia Nau is 11 and a racing fan for life, so she knew NASCAR Technical Institute was the place to be last week.

The Troutman girl stood patiently in line with her mom, Rhonda, grandmother Anna Mae Ferrante and hundreds of others to meet drivers past and present at the 22nd annual Stocks for Tots holiday event and fundraiser.

Since it began, Stocks for Tots has raised about $850,000 and distributed nearly 50,000 toys to local children in need through the nonprofit Exchange/SCAN ("Stop Child Abuse Now") Child and Parenting Center of Iredell County.

About 60 racing personalities donated their time to sign autographs, including drivers from NASCAR, NHRA and other series, crew chiefs and retired racing legends.

JR Motorsports president Kelley Earnhardt and her 10-year-old daughter, Mini Sprint Outlaws driver Karsyn Elledge, showed up with Karsyn's Stocks for Tots car and a check for $1,000. JR Motorsports donated $1,500, and the Stocks for Tots Foundation gave $10,000 to SCAN.

Retired Penske Racing South president Don Miller signed copies of his book, "Miller's Time," for fans.

He's chairman of the Stocks for Tots Foundation, which presented a $10,000 check to SCAN at the event. "This is why we're here," Miller told the crowd, referring to the effort to help children in most need.

Sprint Cup drivers Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch signed for fans, as did retired greats Bobby and Donnie Allison, Neil Castles and Rex White.

Olivia's favorite driver is Chase Elliott, 15, son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott, but it mattered little to her that he wasn't there.

She showed me pictures of her with Bobby Allison and Newman taken at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where her dad, Eddie, works in security. She couldn't wait to see all the motorsports stars Tuesday.

Nor could Suzie Poulin and Donna Fey, who drove eight hours from Cincinnati, Ohio. Poulin held trading cards; Fey came with a Kurt Busch helmet and die casts of cars driven by Bobby Allison and Ray Evernham.

"The drivers and everyone else are just always so nice, and you see people you haven't seen in a year," said Poulin, who's attended Stocks for Tots for eight or nine years.

Daniel and Shannon Morris brought their daughter, Mia, 6, and son, Elias, 4, who took along his model Sunoco race car hauler to play with as the family waited in line.

Daniel Morris, who served in the Marines, is a NASCAR Tech student who grew up attending dirt track races in Georgia. His family came to Stocks for Tots to see "anybody and everybody," he said. So did John Furr, 68, who drove from Albemarle.

Furr loved the event's new venue in Talbert Pointe Business Park. It has been at the Charles Mack Citizen Center in Mooresville and at Lakeside Business Park, where Furr said he froze walking between race shops for autographs.

John Dodson of NASCAR Technical Institute said he hopes the school can host the event for years. Forty of its students volunteered last week, including Stephanie Russo, 19, who helped manage the lines.

She is in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, as a tire changer at Revolution Racing, and hopes to be a crew chief someday. "I'm here because it's just a good cause," Russo said. "It helps kids who are in need."

The motorsports figures signing sheet metal, helmets and trading cards seemed just as happy to be there. "It's a privilege for these guys," Dodson said.

Bobby Allison told me he always remembered the advice of friend Roy "Crash" Armstrong when he entered the sport: "'Every request for an autograph is a compliment,'" he said Armstrong told him. "And it still is," Allison said.

As the evening concluded, Dodson thanked everyone who'd turned out, as many as 1,000 people by the estimate of volunteer John Moloney of Penske Technology Group.

"Have a Merry Christmas," Dodson told the crowd, "and thank you for changing a child's life."