IRL: McGehee wants Kids to 'Think First' about safety

MADISON, Ill., Aug. 24 - Comedian David Letterman often tosses vegetables off Manhattan skyscrapers for a laugh. Fellow comedian Gallagher is so famous for his Sledge-O-Matic that fans in the front rows bring plastic tarps to protect themselves...

MADISON, Ill., Aug. 24 - Comedian David Letterman often tosses vegetables off Manhattan skyscrapers for a laugh.

Fellow comedian Gallagher is so famous for his Sledge-O-Matic that fans in the front rows bring plastic tarps to protect themselves from flying pieces of food.

Indy Racing League star Robby McGehee doesn't go that far, but he does smash watermelons to the delight of elementary schoolchildren he visits as part of his duties as a spokesperson for the Think First Foundation.

Think First is a national organization committed to the prevention of brain and spinal cord injuries and other traumatic injuries through education. There can be few better advocates for helmet and seat belt use than a race car driver, so McGehee regularly visits schools to stress that we all need to "think first" about safety.

When McGehee and the foundation's administrator, Nena Ray, visit a classroom, at one point in their presentation Ray straps a bicycle helmet onto the end of a watermelon and then McGehee drops it onto a tarp on the classroom floor. Sometimes it's slightly damaged, but it's nothing like the splattering that occurs when McGehee drops another watermelon that isn't "wearing" a helmet, generating squeals and laughter from his youngest fans.

The exercise is to emphasize to the children the importance of wearing helmets when they're riding their bikes, skate-boarding or doing anything else that is hazardous.

McGehee also shows the children a simulated human brain and allows them to come up and touch it. The reactions range from tentative touches to more aggressive squeezes but the message gets through: wearing helmets is a good way to protect one's brain.

"Sometimes kids think that wearing helmets and seat belts isn't cool, but if a race car driver like Robby McGehee tells them he wouldn't dream of driving his race car without a helmet and a seat belt, it carries a lot of weight," said Ray.

"I show them my helmet, my HANS device and my fireproof uniform, and most of them get the point," said McGehee, a life-long resident of St. Louis. "If we can eliminate even one injury, it's worth it."

Ray coordinates McGehee's appearances through her work as the Indiana state director and national board member of Think First, which in Indianapolis is funded by the Indianapolis Neurosurgical Group. She is also a long-time race fan and scorer. She has been McGehee's scorer at Indy Racing League events for the last three years. (Scorers are part of the IRL's timing and scoring department. They make sure that each lap a driver completes during a race is counted.)

McGehee also promotes Think First by putting a Think First decal on his race car, a form of advertising worth thousands of dollars. He also includes information about the foundation on his autograph cards.

McGehee is one of the IRL's most popular drivers. Tall, blonde, handsome and friendly, he is a favorite with fans of all ages in addition to the youngest ones.

This weekend at Gateway International Raceway for the Gateway Indy 250 he is behind the wheel of the ABC Moving & Storage/Atlas Van Lines/Sam Schmidt Motorsports G-Force Chevy Firestone #55. The entry is sponsored by Sam Schmidt Motorsports; Parsons Motorsports Marketing; ABC Moving and Storage, which is an Atlas Van Lines agent; Welsch Heating & Cooling; Hardesty Homes; McBride & Son Homes and Compton Roofing. In addition, McGehee himself is affiliated with Budweiser.

At the autograph session that is part of every IRL race as part of the series' "total access" policy, McGehee sometimes gives out coloring sheets and temporary tatoos that Think First provides for his youngest fans at the school appearances.

The coloring sheets promote bicycle safety, seat belt use, water safety, playground safety and weapons safety.

"It's nice of Robby to donate his time to the program," Ray said. "We make as many appearances as we can, but there's always more that can be done. It's a fast-paced world, and with the tremendous popularity of extreme sports, safety is more important than ever."

-rm/lm-

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About this article
Series Automotive , IndyCar
Drivers Robby McGehee , Sam Schmidt