CUP: Kahne Helps Others

Article by Jay Pfeifer,

When Kasey Kahne heads home after a long day at his sprawling Sprint car shop – where he spends virtually every minute of his free time – he winds around the inlets of Lake Norman to a spacious Tudor home that offers unobstructed views of the reservoir.

But were it not for the floor-to-ceiling windows, Kahne would hardly know the water was there. Looking at the lake was as close as Kahne got in 2009.

“I live on the water and last year, I never even spent a single day on the water,” Kahne says.

But don’t mistake the lament for self-pity. He wouldn’t mind more time to enjoy the body of water that lies just steps from his back door – in fact, he picked up his first boat in May of this year – but Kahne doesn’t resent his busy schedule.

“If I were just a race car driver, I’d have too many days off. I’d feel like I was a little bit on the worthless side,” the 30-year-old driver says. “I want to stay busy. I want to do the right things. Not just hang out on the lake all day.”

By almost any measure, Kahne is doing a lot of the right things.

On the track, he has won 11 races in a seven-year Cup career and recently signed a deal with Hendrick Motorsports to drive the No. 5 Chevy starting in 2012. (Kahne will drive for Red Bull Racing in 2011.)

While his racing career flourishes, his other passion, the Kasey Kahne Foundation, has grown into one of the most active philanthropic organizations in a sport chock full of big givers.

But five years ago, his foundation didn’t even exist.

Back then, Kahne was coming off a star-making rookie season in which he finished second in five races (and scored 13 top-fives) and ran off with the 2004 Cup Rookie of the Year award. He rocketed to stardom on the strength of his racing, but also won the hearts of many NASCAR fans with his clean-cut good looks.

Kahne immediately experienced the tidings of life in the spotlight: fame, fortune and an endless number of calls asking for his help.

Like anyone, he tried to do all he could.

“I would hear about someone having a hard time and just try to help them personally,” he says.

But it didn’t take long for Kahne and his older sister, Shanon Adams, to see that not only was it impossible to give to every cause that requested his assistance, it was hard just keeping track of Kasey’s giving.

A foundation, suddenly, started to seem like a logical next step even though Kahne was only in his second year of Cup competition. At the most basic level, a foundation would help structure Kahne’s gifts.

“Kasey wanted to give back,” Adams says. “And the foundation gave us a way to organize it instead of just giving a little here and a little there.”

But the siblings were also building something far greater than a clearinghouse for the driver’s donations. The Kasey Kahne Foundation would allow him to enlist his fellow drivers and race fans and compound his ability to help.

“I wanted to do more than just write a check,” he says. “If I could persuade other people – fans, drivers, whoever – to give too, I could do a lot more good.”

The foundation would also give Kahne some much-needed focus in his giving. Inspired by a friend’s struggle with a terminal illness, Kahne knew exactly who he wanted to help: chronically ill children.

“You see a lot of good causes – animals, autism – there are so many great things. Everyone has his or her own thing,” he says. “But I always just wanted to put a smile on a child’s face.”

Since the paperwork was filed in 2005, the Kasey Kahne Foundation has flourished. With Adams managing the foundation and Kahne providing star power and leadership, the KKF has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of organizations.

But two charities in particular have benefited from Kahne’s largesse: The Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The Ronald McDonald House Charities is – by a large margin – the primary recipient of the foundation’s dollars.

Kahne’s ties to the RMHC started easily enough. With McDonald’s sponsoring his Cup ride, Kahne was introduced to the RMHC through the fast-food chain. But Kahne quickly became a staunch supporter of the organization, which provides support and care to families and children.

“I like Ronald McDonald Houses because you just know, as a kid, growing up, that when you’re sick and your mom is there to baby you and take care of you, that’s the best way to get better,” he says. “When you’re sick, you need your family there. When kids are getting treatment, they’re going to get better quicker with their family present.”

Last year, Kahne gave the largest gift in his foundation’s short history when he pledged $500,000 to help fund the construction of a brand new Ronald McDonald House in Charlotte.

The only major city without a Ronald McDonald House, the Charlotte chapter has raised over $5 million to build a 35,000 square-foot center. Kahne’s gift provided more than some much-needed cash, it gave the capital campaign a jump-start.

“Someone has to get the ball rolling,” says Mona Johnson-Gibson, executive director of the Charlotte house. “You need a couple big gifts to convince other donors to get on board. That's what Kasey did.”

Kahne has given to more than just his hometown organization, however. He’s donated money and time up and down the RMHC organization.

“The work he’s done has been all-encompassing, from his money to his time and participation,” says Jennifer Smith, senior director, communications and special programs for the RMHC. “If he’s doing a race, he’ll stop by a local house. His desire to help is very organic and very true. It just seems very close to his heart. He enjoys spending time there.”

Now, Kahne, Fox Sports Supports (an on-air charitable initiative of Fox Sports) and the RMHC are joining together in the Drive to Care. The initiative hopes to raise $500,000 – enough to fully outfit a brand new Ronald McDonald Care Mobile.

The Care Mobile is a rolling clinic, 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, packed with state-of-the-art technology for administering pediatric care where it’s needed most. Thanks to the global fleet of 39 Care Mobiles, children in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia no longer have to go to the doctor; the doctor can come to them.

As the face of the Drive To Care, Kahne kicked off the campaign with a personal gift of $50,000.

Of course, a donation like that is essential, but the exposure he can bring to the RMHC is invaluable.

“You really can’t underestimate his influence as a role model,” Smith says. “The awareness he helps build is very important so we can continue to serve more children.”

Presenting cardboard checks and attending groundbreaking ceremonies is powerful stuff, for sure. But Kahne relishes the face-to-face time he gets with children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Kahne’s relationship with Make-A-Wish has dovetailed with his own rise in NASCAR.

“I remember going to my first event. I was just there to help kids get what they wanted – a computer, a trip to Hawaii,” he says. “But then a year or two later, they wanted to come see Kasey Kahne. That was a pretty good feeling to know that just meeting me was someone’s wish.”

Some of the children Kahne has spent time with have been so young – 3 or 4 – that he isn’t even sure how they know him.

“Maybe it’s the red car on TV,” he says. “It might be my name – the two Ks. Because it’s always ‘Kasey Kahne.’ It’s never just Kasey.

“Those are the moments that I look back on most fondly. You’re seeing the excitement. Some of those kids, they don’t have a lot of time left. And if you can give them one really great day, I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

After giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in just five years, Kahne’s foundation has already exceeded the driver’s expectations. But he’s still searching for more – looking for new ideas that can bring a fresh approach to fund-raising.

“I like what we do now but at some point, I’d like to see a new idea, a new event,” he says. “I don’t know what it is yet but we’re looking.

“Until then, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and figure out how to make it better.”

– This story originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of NASCAR Illustrated. • Darlington Raceway president receives Palmetto Patriot Award