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Victory laps

Sometimes winning has nothing to do with being first across the finish line.

It was a race for a reason. A race without egos or selfish concerns about personal bests and age-group awards. A race that was all about helping the kids at the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

Victory Junction was founded in 2004 by NASCAR driver Kyle Petty and his wife, Pattie, in honor of their late son Adam, who died in 2000 in a racing accident. The mission of the 72-acre camp located in the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina is to enrich the lives of children with chronic, serious medical conditions. Each summer, children battling illness gather to kick back, relax, and have some fun in a safe and medically sound environment. The camp offers traditional activities, including horseback riding, boating and fishing, arts and crafts, as well as NASCAR-related programs. Think Disney World with stock cars. And the inaugural 2006 Victory Junction Run was created to raise awareness and, hopefully, enough money to send 10 kids to camp.

Considering the strong NASCAR connection, why a foot race instead of a car race? Turns out Kyle is a runner. And his idea was simple: Organize an event that brought together NASCAR devotees who run a little with runners who know a little about NASCAR - and do it all to raise money for the camp. Thus the Victory Junction Run Half-Marathon and 4.5-K in Randleman, North Carolina.

NASCAR fans felt right at home throughout race weekend. The pre-race pasta party was actually a pre-race chopped pork barbecue, coleslaw, and hush puppies party. This southern food fest was held inside the Petty race shop, among some of the newest, slickest cars being built for 2007 events. Kyle's parents, seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty and his wife, Lynda, served as Grand Marshals for the weekend, with Richard waiving the green flag at the start and the checkered flag for the winner, while Lynda blew the horn for the beginning of the 4.5-K Victory Lap race that circled the camp.

But in the end, it was the spirit of caring that made the race so special. Sponsors donated the water and sports drinks. Volunteers seemed to appear out of thin air. And all runners were treated to authentic "track" chili (all meat and beans - no fancy herbs or imported spices) courtesy of Levy Restaurant, the official food service of the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte. The 800-plus participants raised more than $65,000, enough to send at least 25 kids to Victory Junction. And Kyle and Pattie stood at the finish line for nearly four hours hugging and cheering every finisher.

Adding to the inspiration of the day was the fact that many of the participants, from wheelchair racers to cancer survivors, were intimately familiar with the struggles facing the kids at Victory Junction. Runners like Grant Russell, who suffers from multiple sclerosis yet still finished the half marathon in 3 hours and 45 minutes. Only seconds after completing the race, he pulled out an engagement ring and asked his girlfriend to marry him. There wasn't a dry eye at the finish line.

All of us there that day knew we had been a part of something that had changed lives. And some of them were our own.

Waddle on, friends.

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