ST. PETERSBURG — Starting high school without his father has been tough on 16-year-old Jacob Noggle, but Sunday afternoon every roar of an engine that echoed through downtown St. Petersburg brought an enchanted smile to his face. The excitement wasn’t only because he was sitting in the paddocks of the 10th annual Firestone Grand Prix, rubbing elbows with some of the best Indy car drivers in the world and sharing the experience with his two pals Ezra Godwin, 17, and Chris Andrews, 18. Jacob glowed with a heart full of possibilities after hearing the stories of the people that made his once-in-a-lifetime trip possible, he said.
“This is my first time coming to a race, but it’s just amazing being here,” said Jacob, a student at Pinellas Park High School. “You see things like this on television and think that you would never be a part of it, but after hearing about how Miles for Smiles got started it’s really encouraging. I feel like anything I want in life, if I go for it and ask for it I can do it.”
For Jacob, those dreams could be anything from becoming a professional football player or a five-star chef. Or it could simply be a day of fun exploring the Grand Prix circuit with friends, a much welcomed experience after his father passed away in a motorcycle accident about six years ago.
The Miles for Smiles program began as the dream of program director Tim Carrie. Over its three-year history the outreach program has helped more than 50 families going through hardships get the full VIP experience in the paddocks of IndyCar races across the nation. The families are nominated by local church ministers and congregations.
Carrie, a technology manager in Indianapolis, had been a racing fan his whole life. After a routine autograph session at a race event, he formed a friendship with St. Petersburg native IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon, who died in an IndyCar crash in 2011. Several years ago, Carrie’s family life was strained at best, as his wife suffered with bouts of anxiety and the family’s faith became an empty routine. When they learned a high school friend had been diagnosed with Leukemia, they decided to take him for a fun day at the races at the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately, the friend passed away before that race, but the loss encouraged Carrie to cold-call Kingdom Racing with an idea to give others struggling through low points an uplifting day at the track.
“I grew up around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I’ve always loved motor sports, and while I don’t fear much of anything I was terrified when it came time to reach out to Kingdom Racing with just an idea from a nobody with no credentials,” Carrie said. “They responded within a half an hour and said they’ve been praying for someone to come along with the desire to launch a program like this. Their acceptance and that perfect timing has really restored my family’s faith, because we’re seeing God open doors and make things happen I never could have imagined.”
Kingdom Racing is just as competitive as any of the other IndyCar teams that raced around St. Petersburg’s 1.8-mile street course. But beyond winning trophies, the team aims to “deliver God’s word through motorsports.” The Texas-based, non-denominational Christian organization quickly added Miles for Smiles, named after Wheldon’s trademark grins, to it’s lineup of outreach programs, and has gotten other teams to join in the effort, said Kingdom Racing team director Charles West.
The team became the first faith-based team to compete in the Indianapolis 500 in 2008, and is now in its seventh year of racing with driver #77 Simon Pagenaud, who placed third in the 2013 final season standings.
Carrie, his two teenagers and his wife now volunteer their time raising funds in their Wheldon “Lionheart” shirts, operating and even buying gifts like devotional books and Christian CD’s for Miles for Smiles recipients.
“This is just surreal, for me,” Carrie said. “I’ve always said I wanted to combine my faith and love of motorsports and combine them together but never thought it could actually happen. It just doesn’t seem real.”