Off the 8s: Driving far for a good cause

Editor’s Note: Off the 8’s is a new WTOP Living feature, in which staff inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center share stories from their lives when they’re off the clock.

Mike Parris, WTOP/WFED production manager

WASHINGTON – Most of us drive a car because we have to get to work or run errands. We sit in traffic, honk and complain about how bad the other driver is. But what about driving for fun — experiencing the thrill of taking a back road or just stopping to see something you’ve never seen before?

In 2011, our local GTO club, Capital City GTO, saw a posting for a charity road rally, held by Rally North America. The event raised money for the Intrepid Fallen Hero’s Fund. Not really knowing what to expect, we decided it might be fun. So we joined 75 other cars for a three-day rally from Winchester, Va. to Charleston, S.C.

My wife and I hit the road in a 500-horsepower Pontiac GTO that had enough stickers, numbers and vinyl lettering to make a race car you see on TV jealous. At the starting line, we received a folded piece of paper with checkpoints. Our mission was to find these checkpoints and take pictures at them. It was a scavenger hunt of sorts, and most clues were pictures of where we had to go with no given locations or instructions.

Talk about tricky.

To win, participants must hit all the checkpoints and finish with the best time. If you drive too fast or too slow, you lose. Thank goodness for smartphones, good ole’ folding maps and a GPS we named Laverne. She would occasionally try to send us the wrong way.

We covered 1,200 miles in three days, winding through national parks and back roads. We ran four laps on Darlington Raceway and saw parts of America you just don’t see if you take the major highways.

It was a blast getting to hangout with great people from all over North America — people who enjoyed driving for a fun and for a good cause. We were all hooked and ready for next year’s race before we even finished our first.

Our enthusiasm for the 2011 rally caught on when we got back and our GTO club more than doubled its participation and fundraising. The charity in 2012 was The Accelerated Cure Project Inc., and with the help of my WTOP/WFED family, I raised over $1,600 driving from D.C. to the starting line in Indianapolis, all the way to Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., and back.

Whew, 3,300 miles in seven days. Eighty cars total wound down south through states in which I’d never traveled. Driving the steep banking at Talladega Superspeedway at a “slow” 80 mph was once-in-a-lifetime experience, all while raising money to fund additional research for multiple sclerosis.

Now it’s almost time to start the fun again.

All the decals and numbers are on the car. I’ve stopped at AAA for maps and a little help on international driving rules. This time I get to have my passport stamped as a bunch of local Pontiac GTO’s and 85 other cars drive from Ithaca, N.Y. to Saint John, New Brunswick in Canada.

Even the charity has more meaning to me this year. We are raising money for Camp Sunshine in Casco, Maine, which is also the finish line for day two of this year’s rally.

Camp Sunshine is a special place for children with life-threatening illnesses, as well as their families. The camp has the distinction of being the only program in the nation whose mission is to address the impact of a life-threatening illness on every member of the immediate family.

And while it costs $2,000 to send a family to Camp Sunshine, the service is offered for free and is paid for by generous donors.

Thanks to the donations of friends and co-workers, we are sending one family to camp this year. But we would like to send more.

If you are interested in donating to Camp Sunshine, join my rally. I’ll see you on the road.

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