Michael Bennett entered Friday night’s Late Model feature at Stafford Motor Speedway (CT) as the division’s points leader, but points were the last thing on his mind. Bennett was focused not on the championship, nor his race car. His focus was back in Hartford at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center with his three year old son Chace, who just days earlier had been diagnosed with Leukemia and was set to begin treatment to combat the disease.
Despite wanting to stay by his son’s side, Bennett received many encouragements from family and friends to “Race for Chace.” With the support of many drivers and fans at the track, Bennett made his way to the historic Stafford Springs oval, but his mind was still in Hartford.
“We weren’t sure how we’d feel getting to the racetrack. At one point I didn’t even want to go, mentally I just wasn’t into it to be honest,” Bennett told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “But I get there, know there’s a lot of support through Facebook, phone calls, and messages from everybody, I knew there’d be a lot of people there. “It was pretty emotional every time somebody would come up and talk about it. It was hard to give them a response back, but just thanking everyone that came up and said something or even people that didn’t say anything, just felt it was best to say hi and just have as regular a night as possible, just concentrate on racing.”
The goal come race time was simple: Race for Chace. That is exactly what Bennett did. After starting ninth, Bennett quickly made his way to the front slicing and dicing his way through traffic with extra motivation. Three laps into the 30-lap feature, Bennett took over the lead and remained unchallenged over the final 27 laps.
“To have what happened the way it happened, how it happened with winning the race, pretty much passing the majority of the cars in three laps, just to get out front real early. It felt like I wasn’t even driving the race car, like somebody was other than me,” Bennett explained.
“We got out there to an early lead and it wasn’t until lap 15 my father, who spots for me, came on and said ‘We’re halfway through,’ and I was like ‘really!?’ It felt like we had just started, I don’t even know how we got there. The last five laps my mind wasn’t on trying to finish or win that race; it was what we were actually doing for Chace by being out there and had a chance to win, we wanted to wrap it up as soon as possible. I wasn’t paying attention to driving the car, it was just happening, just reaction.”
At the end of the 30-lap Late Model feature, Bennett had collected his sixth win of the year, but this victory lane was to be much different than it was during his five previous visits.
“Then how victory lane was, got a standing ovation, people clapping while I’m trying to speak into the microphone, not really celebrating in victory lane because it’s a celebration that we’re still here and we’re going to live day-by-day. But, not the fact that ever since my son has come here and been a part of our life. Normally it’s been a part of his life. For him not to be able to celebrate with us and how much he loves going down there and seeing daddy and stuff, not being able to wrap his arms around my leg, it really wasn’t the place to celebrate. It was just a matter of getting through what we had just done for him. Emotions were high and things happened that I didn’t expect to happen.”
After pulling back to the pits, Bennett jumped right in his street car and raced back to Hartford, trophy and flag in hand.
“When I got back to the hospital after the races, he was sleeping and I was able to put the trophy and the checkered flag from the flag stand next to the bedside. He woke up some time in the middle of the night and he asked my wife. ‘Where did the trophy come from?’ And my wife said, ‘Where do trophies normally come from?’ and he smiled. Later on we got to talking about it. He took a photo with it and it’s still in his room behind his bed. I know he’s looking forward to adding it to the rest that we have at home from this season and last season.”
Prior to and throughout Friday evening, many in attendance at Stafford had learned of Chace’s situation, offering support for Chace, Michael and the entire Bennett family.
“The support they have given us, friends, other competitors like Woody Pitkat, my entire team for doing the race car deal. I’m not even a part of it right now. At this point it is just get to the racetrack and drive it. Whether, they’re bringing it down to the track for me or preparing it in the garage, they are taking care of all the little things that I sometimes take care of, they’re stepping up and handling it. The Go Fund Me page, the fans, the competitors, people I don’t even know that have contributed to Chace’s medical status, the support with the decals that Woody and my team have been able to distribute to people that have donated money to Chace’s cause has been incredible. It just shows how close racing people are, whether you know them or not, it shows how racing keeps everyone close and it’s important to remember that as much we’re out there banging off each other, trying to beat each other we’re still a close family whether we all realize it or not.”
On Monday afternoon the news for Chace was encouraging, with Chace in high spirits and early treatments going well doctors hope to have him ready to return home on late Wednesday, although a long battle still looms ahead.
As for Michael and the No. 16 team, they are committed to finishing the full season and bring home Chace, who is listed as the car owner, a Late Model championship trophy.
(Editor’s Note: A GoFundMe page has been created to help defray medical expenses for the Bennett family. Those wanting to donate to the #RaceforChace can do so at the following link: http://www.gofundme.com/nru86crs)
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com Northeast Correspondent
-Photo credit: #RaceforChace GoFundMe Page