IRL: Indy Racing League Notebook 2004-02-19

Indy Racing League Notebook Indy Racing League Team Owner Hemelgarn To Be Honored By MDA INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004 -- Ron Hemelgarn was flying back from Thailand and had a layover in Hawaii three years ago when he saw 11-year-old ...

Indy Racing League Notebook
Indy Racing League Team Owner Hemelgarn To Be Honored By MDA

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004 -- Ron Hemelgarn was flying back from Thailand and had a layover in Hawaii three years ago when he saw 11-year-old Mattie Stepanek on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"I was at the vanity when I heard this voice from the TV in the other room," said Hemelgarn, a longtime Indy Racing League owner. "It was very positive and inspirational. I went out and saw this kid in a wheelchair, but he was very mature. I got fascinated listening to him."

Battling a rare form of muscular dystrophy called Mitochondrial Myopathy, Mattie requires a wheelchair, ventilator and weekly platelet transfusions. As the National Muscular Dystrophy Association's Goodwill Ambassador, Mattie struck a chord with Hemelgarn by demonstrating a tremendous positive attitude toward life.

That chance television encounter has culminated in a strong friendship between the two. On Saturday, Hemelgarn will be honored at MDA's 2004 Heartsongs Gala in Washington, D.C.

The gala, in its second year, is co-chaired by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. As the Washington area's largest MDA fundraising event, the night will conclude with Mattie presenting Hemelgarn and television personality Larry King the Heartsongs Award, given to people who exemplify long-standing support of MDA's research programs.

After watching Mattie on Oprah, Hemelgarn rushed out to buy one of the young man's books.

"I've got to meet this kid," Hemelgarn told himself. After a series of phone calls, Hemelgarn arranged for Mattie and his mother to attend the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

"We had them in the Indy 500 parade, and then took them to the race," said Hemelgarn, who owns fitness facilities throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

The Ohio native envisioned a way those clubs could benefit the MDA. Using various events at his clubs, Hemelgarn raised $60,000 for MDA in 2003. The check will be presented at Saturday's gala.

"After getting to know Mattie and his mother (who also suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy), and you realize the life crisis they go through every day, it starts working on you," Hemelgarn said. "He stays so upbeat, and they're such an inspiration that it makes our problems seem very minor."

Hemelgarn, who has been involved in the fitness industry for more than 35 years, has always had a passion for racing. He hitchhiked to Indianapolis from Toledo when he was 18 years old to stand on top of a garbage can in Turn 4 to watch his first 500 Mile Race. He started sponsoring a car in 1978, and bought his own team in 1984.

Hemelgarn's dedication to racing, and especially his love for the Indianapolis 500 culminated in his winning "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" in 1996. Four years later, his team won the IndyCar Series® championship.

In 2002, Hemelgarn and Roger Johnson formed a two-car Menards Infiniti Pro Series team and fielded cars for Aaron Fike and Cory Witherill.

This season, Hemelgarn is back in the IRL Menards Infiniti Pro Series as the owner of the No. 91 car driven by Paul Dana. The first race, the Homestead-Miami 100, is set for Feb. 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

New colors for No. 13: Access Motorsports has yet to secure a primary sponsor for the 2004 season, but team owner/driver Greg Ray said his team won't display blank sidepods for the season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"We have a lot of great new partners with Renovac, CapGemini and Frontier Packaging, but to date we have no primary sponsor," said team owner/driver Greg Ray. "We're working on that, but because Renovac is launching a new product, we're probably run Renovac colors as primary at Miami just as an extra benefit to them."

On the road: A Delphi IndyCar Series car will be on display this Feb. 20 through Feb. 22 at the Kentucky Speedway booth at the Carl Casper Auto Show in the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center, 937 Phillips Lane, Louisville, Ky.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Greg Ray , Cory Witherill , Aaron Fike , Paul Dana