INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Within minutes of arriving Tuesday evening at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health – and less than an hour after climbing out of his car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Ed Carpenter was kneeling to talk to children and pose for photos.
At times, it was difficult to determine who enjoyed it more.
Carpenter was one of 16 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil to participate in the Riley 500, a pinewood derby race held in the lobby of the renowned children’s hospital. Carpenter, an Indianapolis resident and owner/driver of his namesake team, was among the first to arrive and last to leave.
“I just try to make it as fun as possible and make it a more interesting day than what it might normally be around here,” Carpenter said over the sound of children laughing and playing. “We’re able to help them take the focus off whatever they might be dealing with. They don’t want to talk about that. They just want to feel normal and have fun and be a kid.”
The annual gathering brings together Riley patients with Indy 500 racers (AJ Foyt Racing drivers Carlos Munoz and Zach Veach are shown with the Firestone Firehawk and a Riley patient at left). It’s not a fundraiser; instead, its goal is simply fun, and it has become a popular stop in the tour of drivers’ appearances made throughout Indianapolis as preparations begin for the race.
“They (the drivers) can definitely relate, especially the ones who have kids,” said Dr. Paul Haut, chief medical officer at Riley Children’s Health. “When you think about what they came from – running Happy Hour at the track – and are maybe having a great day or maybe having a slightly stressful day, they’re able to come here and give something back that’s meaningful and that has the potential to change a kid’s life, I think that’s really remarkable.”
Drivers talked to patients, signed hero cards, exchanged high fives, posed for photos and participated in a pinewood derby race.
“This is such a happy event, in my opinion,” Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said. “The point of these things is to have a good time, for kids to think about being a kid. It’s the same for the adults. We’re just trying to have fun with them and give them the energy of having fun. That helps them, but it also helps us.”
For Team Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya, who has a children’s foundation in Colombia and was a frequent visitor to Target House at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis during his years with Chip Ganassi Racing, visiting Riley’s is a must.
“The hardest time for me when I went (to Target House) was when I started having kids,” Montoya said. “If you don’t have kids, you don’t understand what their parents are going through. When you have kids and you imagine that this could be your kid, it makes it a lot tougher. Any support we can give is a big thing. … If you can come here and do this and make a kid’s day better, then why not?”
The pinewood derby – a gravity-fueled race of toy cars carved from wood – was unique to this year’s event. It was organized by Robbie Bruner as part of his Eagle Scout project (shown at bottom).
“Riley does an amazing job,” Carpenter said. “This is actually the coolest racing party I’ve seen. The pinewood derby races are a nice touch. We’re so lucky to have this place … here in Indianapolis. It’s fun to come here and do these events.”
Riley is the only comprehensive children’s hospital in Indiana, serving children from all 92 counties. It offers primary and specialty care at more than 50 locations throughout Indiana and is ranked among the top hospitals in the country in 10 categories of specialized healthcare for children. Riley is part of the IU Health network that includes the IU Health Emergency Medical Center at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that treats drivers and fans alike at events including the Indianapolis 500.
“We have people who give back in all kinds of ways, whether that’s philanthropy, which we depend on, or volunteering at events like this,” Haut said. “To have people come out and rally around it is really special. The kids will be really inspired by getting to interact with these heroes in their minds, but I really believe that the drivers walk away inspired as well.”
Judging from the smiles on the big kids’ faces, that goes without saying.
“Kids are the most inspirational people you’ll find,” Newgarden said. “They’re just pure little human beings. That’s what makes them great. They’ll fight through anything. It’s tough to see what they’re going through. You never want to see a kid suffering with an illness, but it’s a reality sometimes. All you can do is try to help pitch in with great organizations like this.”