There is something special about the racing community. From the outside looking in, most people unfairly judge racing. I once thought baseball was America’s sport, but now I’m convinced that it’s racing. The people involved in NASCAR and NHRA are some of the most giving people I’ve ever been around. It doesn’t take but a few minutes to fall in love with the energy at a race. To me, it is a picture of America.
Taking Dream Kid Mitchell Bryant to The NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX raceway in Concord, North Carolina, on October 12-14, was my first NHRA experience. Mitchell is from Ellensboro, NC, and was diagnosed with epilepsy at 14-years-old. With the help of doctors at Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, Mitchell’s family is working to figure out medications and triggers as well as determining which activities are safe for Mitchell. I have been to many NASCAR events across the street at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Watching cars go in an oval does not prepare you for the roar of a Nitro Funny Car at an NHRA event.
As a photographer, I am always watching and paying attention to the details. It is my job to catch the small moments in an interaction. In the three years I have been with Dream on 3, I have met a lot of athletes and been to a lot of sporting events. There is more to see, more to hear, and more people to meet at a racing even, than any other.
Every dream experience has a leader. Mitchell lucked out with his leader, Richard. Richard Burke works in the racing world and is very knowledgeable of the sport. He is also a dog with a scent. If there is someone the dream kid wants to meet or something the dream kid wants to experience, Richard makes it happen. The first dream I went on with Richard was a NASCAR’s Daytona 500. I thought Richard knew everyone, but quickly realized that he would just talk to anyone. Nothing will come between Richard and a dream come true.
Mitchell is a John Force fan. It’s hard not to be a John Force fan. He is a sixteen time NHRA champion who is still racing at almost 70 years old. In every other sport, even golf, you are long retired at his age. Force has no idea his age and honestly I doubt he cares. I’m not sure where he gets his energy but I would like to borrow some for myself. Force is 300+ miles an hour on the track and the same way off the track.
In a lot of ways Mitchell was more interested in the man, the crew, and the behind the scenes than the race itself. The race is great but how did that car go so fast? NHRA is wide open to the public. As an organization they say “Every ticket is a pit pass”. You don’t pay any more to see a team strip an engine after a race and put it back together. If you want to ask a question all you have to do is speak up. You better be loud because I can’t imagine any of them hear very well anymore.
Even with the open policy you have to wait behind a rope. At Dream on 3, we aren’t into ropes. Richard would pull someone aside and in thirty seconds we would be on the other side of the rope. Once the team heard why we were there and who we were with, incredible things happened. No other sport is more willing to do things for the dream kids than the racing community. When I am asked to do a racing dream I know that we are going to see a lot and meet a lot of athletes. These men and women are not tucked away but instead are out for everyone to meet.
Mitchell wanted to wish John good luck before his last qualifying race of the day. We were set to be the last fan to wish him good luck before he strapped himself into a 10,000 horsepower rocket launched him down an asphalt track at 330 mph. That was supposed to be the last time we saw him but that just wouldn’t be the case.
We set off in hopes of meeting more drivers as they sat in the holding area before it was their turn to race. As we walked down the line every single driver got out of their cars to take photos, sign autographs, and share a minute of conversation with Mitchell. Instead of brushing us off because they had to get into the right frame of mind, they took the time to realize that there are more important things in life than racing.
The last car we were able to visit was John’s. He was just about to pull into his spot when we walked up. All we were interested in was a thumbs up and then off to the seats in the grandstands. John voiced to a crew member that he wanted Mitchell in the team vehicle that picks him up after the race. Mitchell was going to have a view of the race that no one else had access to. Just as Mitchell settled in the SUV to ride, out of nowhere John’s daughter, Brittany Force, got in right next to Mitchell. To say it was the icing on the cake would be an understatement.
Athletes are great, but what are you doing with your celebrity? You must know that with those millions of dollars comes a lot of responsibility. It is athletes like John Force who know that they are so much more than a guy who goes fast. He is a man who gives others hope and something to cheer for even when life isn’t going according to plan.
As we walked around, we met so many drivers. We had the pleasure of meeting Jack Beckman, also known as “Fast Jack”. Jack went the extra mile to make Mitchell’s dream come true. I was so impressed with his interest in Mitchell. They walked and talked about everything going on in Mitchell’s life. Jack asked questions about treatment, where Mitchell was from, what he liked about the sport, and if he himself wanted to race one day. Jack introduced Mitchell to friends, his crew, and to the rocket that was about to take him down the track. We said our thank you’s and left Jack to do his job thinking we wouldn’t talk to him again.
Right after the races Mitchell showed interest in getting a tire from one of the teams. After getting turned down by a few and even told that it wasn’t possible, we all but gave up. Richard wasn’t going to let Mitchell go home without that tire. After 20 minutes of Richard asking, we walked into the Infinite Hero Dodge Funny Car tent driven by none other than Fast Jack Beckman. Jack had agreed to give Mitchell a signed tire that couldn’t be used anymore. At that point we all knew that this day couldn’t get any better, and it was time to head out. It’s guys like Jack Beckman that make racing a sport worth watching. He isn’t just a driver; he’s a role model.
Yes, we got to meet great athletes. We saw cars go really fast. Some would even say that fun was had by all. However, the true highlight of the experience was the time I spent with Mitchell and his family. Getting to be the eyes of a dream is something that I love. Things happen during these weekends that are forgotten because there is so much to see. I’m there to help you remember. We all forget things over time but a photo freezes a moment so that we can remember it forever. Thank you for letting me be part of this happy memory.