When Honda Indy driver Graham Rahal and Kitchener Rangers’ alumnus David Clarkson met last weekend in Toronto, the two celebrity athletes had plenty to talk about.
As they stood in the pit stall of Rahal’s #38 Service Central Honda Dallara, Clarkson and his family shared the story of his father’s first trip to the INDYCAR race in Toronto, when the event debuted as the Molson Indy in 1986. Graham did not make that trip (in fact, the 23-year-old driver hadn’t even been born!), but his father, racing legend Bobby Rahal was in the field and won the race.
It turns out that David and Graham share more than just that story. Both athletes have an affinity for hockey; a native of Ohio, Rahal is a long-time fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets and a confirmed lover of NHL hockey, especially during the playoffs. He saw plenty of Clarkson’s New Jersey Devils this postseason, as the team advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Honda Indy Toronto was Clarkson’s first trip to an INDYCAR race, but as he visited pit lane and took in the practice and qualifying laps, it was evident he was enjoying it.
“First trip to the Indy – it’s been a great experience. The people here are so nice and down to earth,” said the Rangers’ grad with a grin. And he wasn’t the only member of the Clarkson clan happy to be there. “My dad was like a little kid, getting to go down and meet Graham. I think he even told him the story that he was here when Graham’s dad won.”
But what really brought the two stars together at the track was a shared passion for helping children suffering from serious illnesses. After his graduation to the pro ranks, Clarkson joined with the Rangers to form Clarky’s Kids, which provides children from Grand River Hospital’s POGO (Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario) Satellite Centre the opportunity to experience the excitement of a Kitchener Rangers game and visit with players and coaches, both in and out of the hospital. As well, this program continues to raise funds that aid in the support of local families and siblings dealing with a child that has cancer.
“I always wanted to do something for the community and help kids, so we started this charity to get them away from what goes on in their lives and how sick they are and what they go through,” Clarkson told the media at the track on Sunday. “It’s something that I hold close to my heart, the idea that you can just put a smile on their face or make them laugh, even if it’s just that one time. When I was growing up, my grandparents used to tell me to help others if you can, and I’ve been fortunate to be in a position to do it.”
Graham was also influenced to give charitably to those in need by someone close to him – his former boss and legendary actor and philanthropist Paul Newman. He started the Graham Rahal Foundation in 2009, with proceeds going to SeriousFun Network, a group founded by Newman, and Alex’s Lemonade Stand, two charities that provide assistance to children battling serious illness.
“I really felt that when [Paul] passed away in the fall of 2008, that his presence somewhat disappeared from the sport,” commented Rahal. “And he was a guy that a lot of people knew for his movie fame, but I think he should be known more for all the charitable things that he did away from that. I felt like I wanted to carry that tradition on, since he gave me my first opportunity.”
Rahal and Clarkson took advantage of the weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto festivities to raise awareness of their respective charities, but it wasn’t all business. Both grinned widely as they exchanged jerseys for the cameras, each taking a moment to jot a personalized message. Their mutual respect was evident as Day One of the festivities came to a close.
“For me to be here and to see what these guys do in the pits, to watch him afterwards sitting watching video, looking at things that he thinks he feels he could change, it’s great,” said David. “Hockey is a very similar game – we come off the ice after practice, we watch videos with coaches, we see what we could do better or different. On a professional level, there are a lot of things that are very similar when it comes to preparing and getting ready.”
And while Graham said he’d stick with the Blue Jackets, he didn’t rule out cheering for New Jersey as he looked at his new sweater in Devils red and black.
“Honestly I’m a fan of anybody I know,” he laughed. “I knew a bunch of the Oilers guys so I support them, too. I’m not like a die-hard fan of one team. So I’ll cheer for David.”
We asked the celebrity athletes what they would do if they could switch jobs for the day. Stay tuned to find out what we learned in Part 2 of Clarky’s Kids at the Honda Indy Toronto!