TAMPA — Ryan Hunter-Reay may be in town for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend.
But the IndyCar Series champion said one of his main priorities Wednesday was to visit with parents and children of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute's Families First program who are coping with a parent's cancer diagnosis.
"I can definitely empathize with people here," said Hunter-Reay, co-founder of Racing for Cancer. His mother, Lydia, died after a two-year battle with colon cancer in 2010.
Families First provides emotional support for families dealing with cancer, in part by helping come up with fun things for them to do together. On Wednesday, that meant a visit from a race car driver and ticket giveaways for Sunday's Grand Prix racing.
Hunter-Reay described his mother as his best friend and a major supporter of his racing. Though she was a registered nurse, he said she delayed getting the sort of routine tests that might have detected her cancer. She learned she had cancer well after the disease had progressed.
"It really hit me that it's preventable," he said. "Colon cancer is one of the easier cancers to beat in its earlier stages. And she got it in stage 4."
Inspired by her memory, he helped start Racing for Cancer, which also supports families, as well as promoting early detection and prevention. He also picked up a partner in AutoNation.
Hunter-Reay spent the afternoon visiting with each family as parents and children sat at tables covered with thick foam hearts, craft glue and glittery pom-poms and created their team project: checkered flags symbolizing their family. He also signed autographs, posed for photographs and answered questions.
A popular one: How fast does your car go?
Hunter-Reay said speeds may top out at 180 mph this weekend.
There was also a Family Feud-style game in which patients' family members responded to challenges such as, "Name five things you know about cancer."
Andrew Leaming, 7, waved his hand wildly in the air, anxious to share his answers. He sat at a table with his brother, Oliver, 2, his dad, Drew, 36, and his mother, Danielle, 33, all from St. Petersburg.
His mother has stage 4 sarcoma, and chemotherapy has not been working as hoped.
"Cancer affects a lot of people. It hurts a lot of people. It's more common," he said. He leaned in close to his father and whispered, "Help me, Dad."
His dad said it was okay to say it, so Andrew blurted out: "Cancer sucks."