Teaming up for kids

When Chris Brown first heard of the idea of the Victory Junction Gang Camp, he knew instantly that he had to be involved with it somehow, some way.

That was 10 years ago, Brown was just 22 at the time.

"I have a strong feeling toward helping young kids who, all they have ever known is being ill," Brown said. "They don't know anything different. Every kid goes through a period of not fitting in, but these kids feel it all the time."

Brown, an Albert Lea native and Apple Valley resident, is finally getting his chance to make a big difference for many chronically ill children from across the country. And the lifelong racing fan has found a way to combine two of his passions — auto racing and helping others.

Brown has teamed with United States Modified Touring Series star Zack VanderBeek of New Sharon, Iowa, to create a Victory Junction Camp car. VanderBeek has splashed his familiar No. 33z on it and will drive it during all five races of the USMTS's swing through northern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota next week.


That begins with Wednesday's race at Oskaloosa, Iowa; Thursday's stop at Allison, Iowa; then the three-day swing through Chateau Raceway, Deer Creek Speedway and Dodge County Speedway. Brown will also have specially-designed T-shirts for sale, with the image of VanderBeek's car, on sale for $20 at all five stops.

All of the proceeds will go to Victory Junction Gang Camp, in Randleman, N.C. The camp was founded in 2004 by NASCAR legend Richard Petty and his wife, Lynda, in honor of their son, Adam, who died after a single-car accident during a NASCAR Busch Grand National Series practice session on May 12, 2000. He was just 19.

"Each week, each session at Victory Junction, each kid there has the same issue," Brown said. "All of the activities that they normally wouldn't be able to do, they can do there. It's a week to forget about being sick and just be kids."

It costs close to $2,500 to send a child to Victory Junction for one week, but campers and their families never have to pay, as VJGC is funded completely by donations.

That's where Brown and VanderBeek come in. Brown lost his girlfriend, Jolene, to breast cancer in 2008. As he accompanied her to her chemotherapy appointments, they would often see young children come through, suffering from cancer. That experience helped Brown and VanderBeek connect as well, as VanderBeek has family members who are cancer survivors.

"We're trying to help fans see a different side of drivers," Brown said, in regards to VanderBeek. "Fans don't always get down to the pits to meet the drivers and see what they're like after races. We want to show them that these drivers have another side to them."

When VanderBeek finishes his run with the VJGC car — he will likely drive it for five more dates later this summer — some car parts and sheet metal will likely be auctioned off, again with proceeds going to VJGC.

Brown was very successful with a similar program last summer, when veteran driver Mark Noble of Blooming Prairie drove a special pink USMTS modified for five races. Pieces of that car were auctioned and Brown sold special T-shirts as well, with all proceeds going to Susan G. Komen for the cure, which benefits breast cancer patients and research.


Brown hoped to raise $2,000 last summer with the Noble program. He ended up with more than $20,000.

"That project really hit close to home for me," he said. "Seeing that car on the track and seeing kids in the stands with the T-shirts on, I was laughing and excited and pumped. Then there were times where I had to fight back tears because of experiences other people would share.

"More than anything, it was so overwhelmingly fulfilling."

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