Amid the cheers and the roars, NASCAR is busy giving back

Fast cars, big crowds, traffic jams and spectacular pre-race shows are a big part of NASCAR’s annual two-week May visit to the Charlotte region.

But so is Wednesday night’s sold-out, black-tie Speedway Children’s Charities Gala at the Ritz-Carlton. And Monday’s fundraising golf tournament for the foundation launched by former NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace.

And sometimes, as driver Kasey Kahne showed Monday, the act of giving back can take place on a smaller stage.

While much of the focus during Race Weeks is on the racing and entertainment activities at Charlotte Motor Speedway, this is also a big time for the philanthropic arm of NASCAR. Many of the sport’s top drivers and teams have charitable foundations.

Wednesday night’s Speedway Children’s Charities event in Charlotte’s uptown is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year. With money raised from the gala and other events, the charity, founded by Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith more than three decades ago, has given tens of millions of dollars to organizations in need.

“We look for organizations that might not otherwise get help,” said Lisa Starnes, executive director of Speedway Children’s Charities. “That’s our mission – to give back.”

The Jimmie Johnson Foundation, directed by the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, recently awarded five $25,000 grants to educational organizations, including Charlotte’s HEART Tutoring, which matches volunteers with students in need of tutoring.

Johnson’s foundation has been supporting educational institutions for several years in Charlotte and elsewhere across the country.

On Monday, several NASCAR drivers took part in a fundraising kart race in Mooresville to benefit Racing4Vets, a nationwide organization that helps wounded U.S. veterans.

Around midday Monday, three-time Coca-Cola 600 champion Kahne visited Kings Mountain Middle School to honor – and surprise – seventh-grade social studies teacher David McDonald.

In addition to being one of the school’s top teachers, McDonald is also a National Guard captain with two tours in Iraq to his credit. And he’s a big NASCAR fan. Kahne was at the school on behalf of one of his sponsors, Farmers Insurance, which has committed to giving $1 million to teachers and schools this year.

When McDonald returned to his classroom after a break, he was surprised to find 14 of his National Guard buddies lining the wall, cheering for him. He didn’t notice Kahne at the end of the line, and he started shaking hands with the soldiers.

Then he got to the end of the line, to Kahne – and gasped aloud before bending over in disbelief.

“I hadn’t seen him there,” McDonald said. “You don’t expect to have that happen in your classroom! I was a little stunned.”

Kahne presented McDonald and his wife, Amy, with VIP tickets to Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 and announced that Farmers was donating a variety of audiovisual equipment to Kings Mountain Middle School.

“This is quite a thrill for us,” Principal Micky Morehead said. “It’s nice to get some recognition for what we’re trying to do.”

Kahne said the visit is a fringe benefit of his job.

“It’s a lot of fun, giving back and honoring people like this who are doing so much good in the community,” he said.

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