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Team Will Get Very Special Help In Long Beach

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 13 2012

The hood of the Audi TT which Don Istook will drive in Long Beach this weekend tells an important story. (Photo courtesy of The Arc)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – He won’t turn a lap in brother-in-law Don Istook’s white-hot Audi TT RS this weekend, but race day can’t come soon enough for Mark Hiett.

“He’s had his bag packed since last Saturday, and to be truthful, he’s about to drive me crazy,” Laurie Istook said of Mark, one of two brothers born with Fragile X syndrome. Mark and Tyson Hiett are the inspiration behind The Arc Audi Racing Program, a new partnership between The Arc, based in Washington, D.C., and Istook’s Motorsports here.

The program’s goal is to provide a unique opportunity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) to experience what it’s like to be part of a professional racing crew at select events in the 2012 Pirelli World Challenge series. Mark Hiett will make his debut as a crew member Sunday during Round No. 3 of the World Challenge, a support race to the 38th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach headlined by the IZOD IndyCar Series.

“Mark is 47-years-old and this is the most exciting thing he’s ever done in his life, to be a crew member on a race car,” said Don Istook, Fort Worth businessman/racer who along with wife Laurie has taken the family’s personal connection with the I/DD community to the paddock.

Through a partnership involving Istook’s Motorsports, Volkswagen Group of America and the Pirelli World Challenge, The Arc Audi Racing Program will invite 20 individuals with I/DD, their support staff and staff from select chapters of The Arc to be honorary crew members at seven venues. Ideally, that five-to six-hour experience also will raise awareness of The Arc and I/DD among racing fans and media. Sunday’s race will see participation from The Arc of Los Angeles and Orange Counties at Long Beach, site of America’s most successful and prestigious street race on a 1.968-mile, 11-turn layout.

Mark and brother Tyson, 50, have Fragile X, a genetic syndrome that is the most common inherited cause of intellectual disability and the single-gene cause of autism. Individuals with the condition have developmental delay and behavioral and emotional difficulties. Fragile X is caused by a mutation in the FMR-1 gene, located on the X chromosome.

Don Istook said Mark has the intellectual capacity of a 10-year-old, and an unbridled love of motorsports. “Part of this for me is a feel-good, personally, because if you saw Mark’s expression when I gave him his team shirt – held up his team shirt – it was just beyond words,” said Istook, 60. “And when you see people that don’t have an opportunity – whether it be intellectual opportunity or physical opportunity _ realize they can be part of something they’ve always dreamed of, it’s a pretty good feel-good.”

Mark’s at-track tasks will include helping to load and unload the Audi TT RS, change tires, assist in cleaning the car and perhaps help on the pit-to-cockpit radio.

“When we bring the group in from The Arc, we want Mark to give them a two-three minute talk of what it means to be on a race team,” said Don Istook, who will be assisted by Laurie as group coordinator.

“I did tell Mark he needs to be thinking about what he’s going to say,” said Laurie Istook, an Educational Diagnostician for the Birdville Independent School District with a 29-year background in special education. “I think I’m going to have to guide him a little bit, but we’re going to tell him what to include, how to look people in the eye, which is a little bit of a problem for him.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to put people like my brother with I/DD out in the spotlight and give them a chance to show what they’re capable of doing. Sometimes we have preconceived ideas that they don’t have anything to offer and that’s just so untrue. You spend time with Mark and Ty and immediately you sense their enthusiasm and love for whoever they’re with and whatever they’re doing. They brighten your day.”

Don Istook, who began working on the program in November, admitted part of his impetus was self-serving. “I was thinking, ‘How do these people (his competitors) get sponsors? They come up with an angle,’ ” Istook said. “And part of it’s selfish but part of it’s true-to-life – just looking at Mark and how he loves racing – we don’t see mentally challenged people at racetracks. You see handicapped and wheelchair-bound people sometimes. It just kind of hit me that there’s bound to be some foundation out there that Mark and Tyson fall under that we could approach, not trying to get them to sponsor us but to come up with an association where we can help.

“I looked up The Arc, went to their website, found Trudy Jacobson’s name and left a message saying: ‘Give me a call if you have an interest in this.’ She called me back right away and said, ‘That’s fantastic. I love the concept. Let’s talk.’ Now we have a contract with them.”

The Arc has a network of over 700 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD. Jacobson, chief development and marketing officer for The Arc, said that in recent years the organization had backed away from partnership proposals.

“When Don called there was something about it that spoke to us…and really revitalized the organization with a whole new identity. Sort of a coming-out party,” said Jacobson, who plans to attend her first live motorsports event soon to watch The Arc Audi in action. “I think Don was surprised when I called back. What sealed the deal was Don gets it.

“We realized that The Arc is an organization nobody has heard of. If you have a family member or friend or co-worker that has I/DD, you have heard of The Arc. But if you don’t have that immediate connection you don’t know and we felt that aligning ourselves with SCCA (Pro) Racing is an opportunity for us to connect with people. We want everyone to understand the people we serve have the same needs and interests and dreams as you, only the challenge is a little tougher.

“We’ve been in touch with VW Corporation of America and they gave us some seed money to underwrite some of the immediate marketing expenses. We’re looking for more corporations to step forward. Here’s this man who has family and is totally dedicated to racing and needs the racing to support that. We’re hoping that we’ll get more companies to call and find out what can we do.”

Istook said his small team of volunteers, management of The Arc and World Challenge officials will have to “dance a little bit” to see how the program works out. “They’re (The Arc) a national organization and they’re excited about little Podunk me putting this program together for them, which makes me feel really, really good,” Istook said. ”We’ve got a two-year commitment from them, so we can legally use their name, use their logo on our car.

“We’re a sponsored team for World Challenge. ‘Sponsored’ means I paid $11,000 to be a sponsored team. But with that we get X-number of seconds of TV coverage at every race (tape-delayed on NBC Sports Network), we get a full-page ad in the Fan Guide. Instead of touting me, my team or my sponsors, it’s touting The Arc. Also, any prize money we earn, I’m going to donate 10 percent to The Arc.”

Track-wise, Istook believes the 2012 Audi TT RS he purchased for $65,000 will be a competitive platform in the World Challenge’s GTS class for production-based cars.

“The car we’re using is the first one sold in the country in four years,” said Istook, who toured the Audi Quattro factory where the TT RS is built in Neckarsulm, Germany, last fall. “We could not get another car from Audi, and I’m not going to get into why. So, our plan with The Arc is real high-profile. I made the decision to take my brand new TT RS and turn it into a race car because, one, we can win and two, because of the high-profile of that car – a five-cylinder turbo with about 420 HP stock. I build all my own race cars, hand-work and machine a lot of the parts. We’re not building the motor but if I needed to I could build the motor, transmission, the suspension, the roll cage.

”I really am kind of a throwback, because not many drivers today build their cars. Very, very few build their cars let alone work on cars. So I’m an old-school racer, and there’s not many around anymore.”

Istook’s Audi TT RS will be competing against the Boss 302 Ford Mustang, Nissan 370Z, Chevrolet Camaro, Porsche Cayman S, Mitsubishi Evo, Kia Optima and Acura TSL, the latter two marques with considerable factory backing. In addition to The Arc, Istook’s sponsor lineup includes REVO Performance Software, Enkei Wheels, Forge Motorsports and STOPTECH High-Performance Brakes Systems.

“I’m probably the lowest-budgeted team out there, but I think the car can win with me driving,” said Istook, whose racing resume since 1977 includes stints and assorted victories in SCCA Amateur and Pro Racing, IMSA GTU, Motorola Cup, GRAND-AM Cup, Rolex GT, National Auto Sport Association, Firestone Firehawk and Porsche Club of America.

“When I talked to SCCA, they said they’d love to have that car (on the grid),” said Istook, whose repair/performance shop led by foreman B.J. Jones caters primarily to Audi, Porsche and VW vehicles.”It all kind of fell together but it’s a huge financial stretch for me to do this. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work some good deals with sponsors and come up with some better pricing that has made it do-able. But we need a sponsor. In fact, I’ve had a little decal made that says “SPONSORS NEEDED” with my phone number (817-332-6547). I’m thinking about putting it on the car.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, April 13 2012
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