ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Four days before competing in the race he’s won the previous two seasons, Sebastien Bourdais found himself in the midst of mayhem Wednesday at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The good kind of mayhem.
“It’s been pretty wild,” Bourdais said with a laugh during a break before the start of Kart 4 Kids, the charity karting event he founded in 2012 with sports car driver Patrick Long. “We were here late last night setting up the track, and then the guys were all over at the house last night.”
Bourdais started Wednesday’s activities with autographs for the dozens of volunteers who help put on the event, which raises money for Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. The hospital, located four blocks from the kart course at Turn 1 of the downtown St. Petersburg street course, offers pediatric critical care for infants, children and teens in more than 50 specialties.
A resident of St. Petersburg, Bourdais was at the center of the charitable whirlwind, shaking hands with volunteers, fellow drivers and amateur participants, organizing practice sessions, and helping to set up a silent auction of racing memorabilia.
Combined, the seven previous Kart 4 Kids events raised more than $411,000. Last year’s event alone raised enough to help Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital purchase three portable electroencephalogram (EEG) units and an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) unit.
After signing shirts and an illustration of his car by Steve Petrosky, Bourdais took a short break to talk about his pride and joy.
“It’s really demanding, but it’s also really rewarding,” Bourdais said. “When you start raising close to $200,000, you start to feel really good about what’s going on. It’s a feel-good moment to be able to be a part of it and help some kids that are in need.”
At one point, Bourdais stopped to help his father, Patrick, back a blue Acura NSX into a tight spot near the race’s hospitality tent. The highest bidder from a silent auction run in conjunction with the event will ride along with Sebastien Bourdais in the NSX on track before Sunday’s race, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opener.
It’s hardly a typical day before the opener, but it’s not abnormal, either. Most of the 11 NTT IndyCar Series drivers who competed in Wednesday’s event, including five-time series champion Scott Dixon, have competed in it multiple times.
“It’s typical of a race-car driver – when you’re committed, you’re committed,” said AJ Foyt Racing driver Tony Kanaan. “I’ve been part of it since the first year. It’s great event. Everybody has a lot of fun.”
As amateur competitors prepared to practice, Bourdais checked tires, pull-started engines, even checked the barriers on the course. On this day, he was more like his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan pit crew that prepares his No. 18 SealMaster Honda for the races.
“One thing I really enjoy about it is that nobody is getting paid for it,” Bourdais said. “Everyone is a volunteer. All the money goes to the hospital. Obviously, we have some expenses. We have to bring the barriers from Indianapolis because you can’t find them easily anywhere, but everything else is time-donated and (silent auction) donations from drivers, like suits and helmets. For me, it’s about being able to give back to the community.”
The silent auction featured racing memorabilia – suits, boots, helmets, visors and artwork. There were autographed racing shoes from Ryan Briscoe, signed checkered flag sunglasses from Josef Newgarden, a signed firesuit from Bourdais, and one of Kanaan’s memorable green 7-Eleven suits.
“I don’t have that many of those left,” Kanaan said. “It’s one of those suits that has everything to do with this racetrack. … It’s not hard to give these things away for a cause like this. I try to keep some items so I can tell my kids the stories behind them, but I had a few spares. I raced for 7-Eleven for eight years, so I’ve got a few of them.”
Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon, the sons of late two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, were also on hand and drove ceremonial laps in karts to get the action started.
Some ceremonial laps at @GPSTPETE by Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon with their karting teammate Beckham Jacir. And maybe a Fortnite dance or two 😂
All apart of the 8th annual #Kart4Kids Pro-Am with @BourdaisOnTrack pic.twitter.com/6AyPwtU5RJ
An unofficial tally following the close of the auction Wednesday night had more than $43,000 raised from those items alone.
The relationship between Kart 4 Kids and Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital is personal for Bourdais, the hospital’s employees, patients and their families.
“We buy equipment for them,” Bourdais said. “We don’t just write them a check and say, ‘Have fun with it.’ We know it’s going to save some lives. It’s the only critical care pediatric hospital on the west coast of Florida. They money is being put to good use. That’s why we’re doing it.”
It’s also personal for the drivers who donate and compete in the event.
“Since I’ve had kids, I always put myself in the parents’ shoes,” Kanaan said. “They’re trying to help sick children. We don’t realize how lucky we are to have healthy kids. When you have a bad day at the racetrack, you have nothing to complain about. Anything we can do to make them feel better, we’ll always be available to help.”
Action at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins with practice sessions Friday. Qualifying is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday, with the race set to air live Sunday on NBCSN (12:30 p.m. ET) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).