NASCAR BTS: Children’s Dream Racer More Than Labor of LoveBy Mary Jo Buchanan
This week’s NASCAR Behind the Scenes spotlights the work of Mark ‘Smitty’ Smith, a 71 year old former fabricator whose labor of love is building kid-sized race cars for use in various children’s hospitals throughout the country.
These race cars, which are mini-version of NASCAR stock cars complete with corporate logos and race car seats as well as oxygen bottle holders and IV poles, are called Dream Racers and they do indeed make dreams of so many children in need come true.
So how did Smitty come up with this novel and innovative idea? Well actually the notion took hold after a failed attempt at building a kid sized race car for the McDonald’s food chain.
“I worked for race teams early on and had my own fab shop for twenty plus years,” Smitty said. “I got an occasion to redo some McDonald’s stores and part of what they wanted was a little car with a car hop tray so kids could have their Happy Meal in it.”
“We did that and when we finally got it to them, they decided it was too big and took up too much floor space,” Smith continued. “So, we brought the car back home and it collected dust for a few years.”
“One day, we were slow in the fab shop and I told the boys to re-body it and make it more like a real NASCAR body,” Smitty said. “My girlfriend suggested the oxygen bottle holder and IV pole.”
“I was still thinking restaurants but one thing led to another and we started trying to market them to children’s hospitals,” Smitty continued. “David Reutimann bought one and we were off and running.”
The first Dream Racer went to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. And initially Smitty did not quite get the reaction for which he had hoped with that first delivery.
“To be honest, the first reaction was that they stopped me at the door,” Smitty said. “The biochemical engineer told me it had to go through a biomedical exam before it could come into the hospital.”
“So, I thought that was going to be the end of this,” Smith continued. “He said that it had to score a 92 out of a 100 and they took it in and had it for half hour or so.”
“He came out with a smile and said it scored 152,” Smitty said. “So, they were glad to have it.”
Smitty has learned quite a bit along the way, modifying the Dream Racer based on the feedback he has received from doctors and even parents.
“The first Dream Racer had full sides and so the kids had to climb in and out of it,” Smitty said. ”My doctor came by the shop and said that I needed to leave the side off so sick and handicapped kids could get in and out.”
“So, that’s what we started to do,” Smitty continued. “And we also had a cloth material, upholstered seat and he said we needed to get rid of that too.”
“So, we put a vinyl or leather seat in so it’s washable.”
Each Dream Racer, hand built one at a time, costs $9,500. The child-sized race car includes a safety harness, spoiler, splitter and a Play Station and television monitor that will play everything from the NASCAR racing game to Sponge Bob Square Pants.
Smitty admits that although people purchase a Dream Racer for many different reasons, the effects they have on the lives of children is unsurpassed.
“People buy them for different reasons,” Smith said. “The Leonard Bus Company in New York bought one for Arnold Palmer’s Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg because 21 years ago their son was born premature and it was pretty touch and go.”
“They saved that baby’s life and the commemorated his 21st birthday at the hospital with a Dream Racer.”
“I’ll tell you a story,” Smitty said. ”A little girl came into the hospital kicking and screaming because she had to have a kidney biopsy.”
“She played in the Dream Racer and not only went through the biopsy but told her mother she would be glad to come back if she could play in that Dream Racer.”
“And an ESPN camera man when we presented four cars donated by Rick Hendrick and the Dream Catchers Society was wrapping up his cords and he told me that a lady and a little boy came to the hospital,” Smitty said. “The lady told him that her child wouldn’t speak to him because he had autism and was an expressionless child, showing no emotions.”
“He got into the Dream Racer and pretty soon he was smiling and whispering to his mother,” Smitty continued. “And that’s the first time she ever saw his teeth unless she was brushing them.”
Although there are 756 children’s hospitals throughout the country, Smith has built 35 cars to date, with one international placement of a Dream Racer to the Children’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada.
“My goal is to get a Dream Racer in every children’s hospital,” Smith said passionately. “But it’s more than that because each hospital needs more than one Dream Racer.”
“So, every day is a new deal and a new challenge,” Smitty continued. “And we just keep building them.”
“This is a blessing that the Lord has made.”
For more information about the Children’s Dream Racer program visit their website at www.childrensdreamracer.com.