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Johnny Benson, Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race Diary, Day 1

by Johnny Benson
Friday, April 17, 2009

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Johnny Benson
We’re here in Long Beach and I’m really looking forward to this weekend’s Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race, which is a part of the Toyota Grand Prix IndyCar event.  Racing on a street course is something really different for me, about the only thing I can compare it to is a mini-Grand Prix for the Arthritis Foundation back in Grand Rapids in the early 1990s.

While the weekend gets started tomorrow (Friday), the event actually began a few weeks back out in Lancaster, Calif., with a training session for all the drivers to get used to the Scions we’ll be racing and to give many of the celebrities their first taste of racing.

Danny McKeever, the driving instructor and his staff have done a tremendous job helping everyone get comfortable in their cars and getting them acclimated.  They’ve done a tremendous job.  The training was a lot of fun.  It was very interesting to drive a front-wheel drive race car with anti-lock brakes on a road course.  Truthfully, I still haven’t adapted very well to it.  I tend to have this little problem of separating the circle track racing we normally do in our Toyota Tundra in the Camping World Truck Series and road racing.

It’s really interesting to meet all of the racers involved in this year’s race.  I’ve known Al Unser Jr. for a lot of years and we come from the same world, so it’s always good to see Al.  It’s been a great experience to talk to and get to know some of the celebrities.  It’s really cool to meet someone you’re used to seeing on TV or at the movies.  It’s a great field with the likes of movie stars Keanu Reaves and Adrien Brody, Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek, and TV stars Tim Daly, Eric Close and Mary Lynn Rajskub – and that’s only about half the field.

Johnny Benson (L) with Al Unser Jr.
I am meeting some of these stars that I see on TV and it’s pretty neat, but I think it also has given me a little different perspective toward our own fans in racing who may normally only see us on TV.  It has to be very similar and I appreciate how they must feel when they’re out at the race track.
While it’s been great getting to know all the people and preparing to compete in this weekend’s race, the most important thing about the race is that it’s run for charity – in this case, Racing For Kids, which benefits Children’s Hospitals.  Over the years, Toyota has raised almost $2 million for charities here in Southern California through the Pro/Celebrity Race, so it really is a worthwhile event.

Today we were scheduled to go down to visit some children at Miller Memorial Children’s Hospital in Long Beach only to have the event cancelled after a tragedy occurred at the hospital where a shooting occurred in the work-place.

It was heart-breaking for all of us.  When we heard about the news, we were all stunned.  We looked into going later, but that wasn’t going to be an option with local authorities.  It’s really sad, not only for the loss of life, but getting a chance to go see the kids is really what this whole event is about Children’s Hospitals here in Long Beach, Victory Junction Gang. 

Well, we’ve got a driver’s meeting here shortly, so I’ll cut this short now.  Tomorrow I’ll give you an update on how practice and qualifying went and who I think might win this race.

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