The glitz, glamour and glory of racing for children

While Hollywood’s love affair with auto racing may be making headlines in April around the time of the Toyota Grand Prix Pro/Celebrity Race, the romance with this particular contest certainly isn’t new.

In fact, since the first race in 1977, approximately 550 of Hollywood’s biggest names have driven in the annual Toyota Motorsports event. On April 14 – the event’s 36th running – the latest group of glamorous drivers will be no less enamored with the glorious endeavor than were those very first participants.

Celebrities who have heeded the call of the race include last year’s winner, William Fichtner, plus Keanu Reeves, William Shatner, Gene Hackman, George Lucas, Queen Latifah, Cameron Diaz, Jay Leno, as well as sports legends like Joe Montana, Martina Navratilova, Tito Ortiz, Tony Hawk, Laila Ali, – and the list goes on. These luminaries have found the glory of roaring down the streets of Long Beach, Calif., in race-modified Toyota Scion tCs to be as alluring as any glitzy premiere or glamorous red carpet event. On the nation’s oldest and most revered street course, stars can’t worry if their hair is just so or their makeup is right – they’re too busy feeling the thrill of the race.

The lucky group who’s had the chance to race for glory in race-modified Toyota Scion tCs has experienced firsthand the largest, longest-running corporate-sponsored celebrity-racing event in the world. Though on the track the stars are pitted head-to-head, the race seems to unite celebrities in one thing: their enthusiasm for it.

“What adult can resist going against the lights as fast as you can against 16 of your friends,” asks Emily Procter of “CSI Miami,” who competed in the 2007 race. Oscar winner Adrien Brody was more succinct when he said simply, “I love this.” Reeves, winner of the 2009 race, summed up the consensus of the celebrity response to driving in the race when he said, “It is such a great feeling.”

The 10-lap, 1.97 mile course in the heart of downtown Long Beach, Calif., has been transformational for some of its drivers. In fact, it was at the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race where past contestants Patrick Dempsey of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jason Priestley of “Beverly Hills 90201” and Frankie Muniz of “Malcolm in the Middle” fame discovered a real passion for racing. That trio pursued the glory of victory in second careers as professional race-car drivers. Other actors, such as Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Brian Austin Green, have been inspired by their participation in the Toyota race to go head-to-head with pro drivers on the track, as well.

In this star-on-star competition, every driver – even those celebrities who don’t turn pro – are in it to win it. Because in this case, a victory means more than just a trophy: The race benefits the company’s charity of choice, Racing for Kids, and also a charity of the winner’s choosing. Racing for Kids is a national organization that supports the Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach and the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Southern California.

Because of the good that it achieves, the organization has helped make this event more than just an adrenaline rush for its famous drivers. Many of the stars cite the children’s-hospital visit as the highlight of their time with the event.

“I’m thrilled to be able to do this for charity, Racing for Kids – it’s a real honor,” says actor Christian Slater of his participation in 2010.

“The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race has been bringing the glamour of Hollywood to the streets of Long Beach for the past 35 years,” says Les Unger, Toyota’s national motorsports manager. “And over all that time, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: The stars come here celebrities, but they leave race car drivers, and they all want to taste the glory of the victory lap. That enthusiasm is a big part of what keeps us all excited to come back every year.”

The Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race will also be televised to a national audience. The drivers will have practice and qualifying sessions April 13, and the star-studded crew will also visit the Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach earlier in race week. Toyota has donated close to $2 million to the Racing for Kids organization since 1991.

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