CARMEL, Indiana – Competitive spirits were high on Monday afternoon when INDYCAR drivers rode inflatable horses for a worthy charitable cause. And as opposed to the Kentucky Derby two days before, everyone went home happy from the Children’s TherAplay Foundation’s #Horsepower500 powered by Fifth Third Bank.
Unlike when they are behind the wheel of a race car, a dozen NTT IndyCar Series and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers, as well as 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, had to create their own horsepower with their feet while straddling the blow-up pony. The drivers hopped and raced on a track inside the Children’s TherAplay stable, grabbing a carrot from their TherAplay teammate and carrying it in their mouths horse-style as they rambled back to the finish line.
The event was all in good fun as, for the fourth straight year, INDYCAR drivers participated in the fundraiser. Anders Krohn, the former driver and current analyst on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, discovered Children’s TherAplay six years ago when looking to volunteer for an Indianapolis-area nonprofit. It didn’t take long for the Norway native to become enamored with the organization’s mission and begin work on an event to raise funds and awareness.
Children’s TherAplay provides physical and occupational therapy for special-needs children between 18 months and 13 years of age, including those diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and autism. The use of horses in the program, known as hippotherapy, makes it unique.
“A horse’s motion mimics 90 percent that of a human walking,” said Krohn. “For a kid that maybe struggles to figure out ‘how do I walk,’ actually sitting on the horse and befriending the horse builds that bond to help them.”
Krohn has been overwhelmed with the growth and popularity of the #Horsepower500 and the efforts of Children’s TherAplay in general. He credits the involvement of INDYCAR drivers.
“It has been absolutely massive,” the former Indy Lights driver said, “just in the fact that people know about it now. Whereas before, it was only if you were a parent that needed (therapy) for your kid, then you could look it up and you could find it.
“We started out the first year with no grandstands. Then we went to one grandstand (and) now we have two big grandstands. We are expecting over 600 people here today and all of them have bought tickets, so that is helping financially.”
Just as important, Krohn added, is the bond that the drivers quickly build with the children.
“It’s also the connection that they build with the kids because these kids they are racing nuts, their families are racing nuts.”
Meyer Shank Racing driver Jack Harvey is a perfect example. Last year, Harvey forged a bond with his “kiddo,” William. Harvey doesn’t know what he did, but a couple days after the #Horsepower500, he received a message from William’s personal trainer that William could now tie his shoes – something he had never done before.
“He actually came down to (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and we sat on the yard of bricks and had a cool event together, just him showing me how he could now tie his shoes,” said Harvey, who now volunteers his own time to walk alongside young patients as they ride their horse.
“I love the message of what all the guys are trying to do (to support Children’s TherAplay),” Harvey said, “and it’s great.”
The format for this year’s #Horsepower500 changed from the past three years, when drivers raced large three-wheeled bikes. Inflatable pony hops were tabbed as the “vehicle” of choice for their durability, but Carlin’s Charlie Kimball knew going in what would happen as each driver searched for that competitive advantage.
“At some point, everyone is just going to pick (the pony hop) up and put it over their shoulder and literally carry their horses,” Kimball said.
That’s exactly what happened.
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver James Hinchcliffe fell behind Harvey and Indy Lights driver Oliver Askew from Andretti Autosport in the first heat, picked up and carried his pony hop in an attempt to win, but fell short to Askew.
“I won’t say that the trikes in the past have been the safest mode of transportation to race around a dirt track,” said Hinchcliffe, a four-year #Horsepower 500 participant, “but I look at these (pony hops) and, though they look soft and cushy and fluffy, they are dangerous!”
Hinchcliffe picked up an unused pony hop and attempted to block Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon from reaching the finish line in a later heat, but Dixon battled past to win. Spencer Pigot of Ed Carpenter Racing and Kyle Kaiser from Juncos Racing won the other two heats before the grand finale that saw Kaiser leap across the line to the overall victory.
Others participating included NTT IndyCar Series drivers Conor Daly, Marcus Ericsson and Graham Rahal and Indy Lights pilots Zachary Claman and Ryan Norman. It was an enjoyable day for all.
“We’ve had some incredibly hilarious moments here with INDYCAR drivers,” Krohn said, “and you can see how competitive they get even on a tricycle, and this year we have pony hops. It’s gratifying seeing the INDYCAR community get behind this and the fact that now we’re not just raising awareness for TherAplay, but we’re raising funds as well.”