Before IndyCar hits the streets of downtown St. Petersburg for this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix, some of the biggest names in motorsports will first take the wheel of go-karts to raise money for children.
Kart 4 Kids is a non-profit organization that raises money for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, specifically through its Pro-Am Kart Race. The race, held Wednesday (Feb. 23) at Andersen Race Park in Palmetto, raised $300,000 last year, and has surpassed $1 million in total donations since its humble beginnings a decade ago.
In addition to the money generated by amateurs paying to race alongside professionals at the top of their sport, drivers also donate a myriad of memorabilia for auction. Fans can bid on helmets, suits and gloves – all race-worn and autographed by drivers. Kart 4 Kids is also offering a chance to take a trip around the track alongside some of the pros, including St. Pete resident and one of racing’s most decorated drivers, Sebastien Bourdais. Winners have the choice of riding in either a Porsche GT2TS or a new Corvette.
“We are arguably the largest auction of signed motorsports memorabilia in the U.S.,” said Chris Russick, executive director of the Kart 4 Kids Pro-Am.
Joining Bourdais on the track are some of the biggest names in IndyCar. Scott Dixon, Pato O’Ward and last year’s St. Pete Grand Prix winner, Colton Herta, are all expected to participate.
“We are very fortunate to have had and continue to have tremendous talent,” said Russick. “One year, we had five drivers who had won the Indy 500 in our event.”
Kart 4 Kids began as a tribute to IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon, who lived in St. Petersburg with his wife and young children until his tragic death in October 2011 during an IndyCar race in Las Vegas. Wheldon was a strong supporter of St. Pete’s All Children’s Hospital, and the idea for a pro-am kart race to benefit the pediatric hospital in his honor was born in early 2012.
Dr. Patrick Mularoni is the medical director for the sports medicine program at All Children’s and oversees the Kart 4 Kids Concussion Initiative. He said Kart 4 Kids has long been a close supporter of the hospital, and when the non-profit realized the groundbreaking research into pediatric concussions that All Children’s is undertaking, all parties involved realized the potential for partnership.
“The support Kart 4 Kids provides Johns Hopkins All Children’s sports medicine and concussion research will not only impact the children we take care of here in St. Petersburg but will impact children across the country and around the world,” said Mularoni. “That’s essentially what we’re doing.”
Mularoni said the partnership with Kart 4 Kids funds a research assistant and helps provide a pediatric concussion research lab. Funding from the pro-am has also helped create a retrospective database examining all of the hospital’s concussion patients over the last five years.
All Children’s, which Mularoni said is one of the largest pediatric concussion centers in the country, is now looking for commonalities in patients to create predictive models. These models better inform patients and their parents on the length of treatments and how much time they need to take off from sports and heavy activity.
All Children’s utilizes machine learning and wearable technology to monitor movement, sleep patterns and heart rate variability to predict concussion outcomes and help push kids forward following injuries. Mularoni called this research a “game-changer.”
“Although Kart 4 Kids is rooted in the motorsports community, what we learn from the research we’re doing will help all children with concussions,” said Mularoni. “Not only in predicting who is likely to have a prolonged course after a concussion, but also to advance the technology that helps us diagnose concussions and help advance athletes through protocols.”
Jack Chmura, 15, has a unique perspective on the Kart 4 Kids cause. Not only has Jack raised money for All Children’s by racing in the Kart 4 Kids Pro-Am, but he found himself on the receiving end of its groundbreaking research and treatment.
Jack is a driver with the Mottaz Sports Team, who annually participates in the Kart 4 Kids Pro-Am. In the fall of 2021, just months after racing in the pro-am, Jack was behind the wheel of his go-kart racing in a competitive event at the same track when he sustained a concussion. He was transported immediately from Palmetto to the Kart 4 Kids Concussion Institute at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
“There was a time when I was worried if I was going to be able to keep racing,” said Jack. “But we got to All Children’s, and they helped a ton.
“I think it’s really cool how it kind of comes full circle with me helping Kart 4 Kids and then Kart 4 Kids actually helping me.”
Mularoni personally attended to Jack, and the young racer said his treatment went smoothly and quickly. Jack said he was back doing what he loved again within a month – driving.
Jack said his injury provided a new appreciation for Kart 4 Kids and the programs it supports. He said he always thought it was a great cause, but his treatment put a face to those it benefits – kids just like himself. Moving forward, Jack said he plans to participate in Kart 4 Kids every year, and he hopes to eventually represent the professional side of the pro-am event.
“One day, I would love to do that,” he said. “I love the speed, and I love the mechanics of it all.”
Mularoni noted it is not often that fans of racing and IndyCar have an opportunity to drive alongside their heroes and people they would normally watch on television or at a distance from the grandstands. He called Kart 4 Kids a fun event that brings the motorsports community together for a good purpose – helping children.
“It’s super cool to be out there,” said Mularoni. “These guys are literally racing with their idols.”
For more information on Kart 4 Kids, visit the website here.