West Virginia Airman Races to Top Spot in National Contest
By Staff Sgt. Sherree Grebenstein, 167Aw, Public Affairs
/ Published October 05, 2011
Martinsburg, W.Va. -- Thirty minutes may not seem like a long time to some, but spent creatively it can help make a difference in a life.
Just ask Master Sgt. Tim Blankenship of the West Virginia Air National's 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, W.Va.
Blankenship's entry to design a racecar for Toyota's Sponsafier 3 contest earlier this year bested more than 45,000 entries. And he didn't have to search far for an inspiration when coming up with a unique design for the Toyota Camry stock car.
The Berkeley Springs, W.Va., man chose the logo and two-tone pink color scheme of "Chelsea's Hope" for the race car's signature design. A flight engineer instructor with the 167th Airlift Wing, Blankenship said he wanted to help generate national awareness for Lafora Disease which is an inherited myoclonus epilepsy syndrome. Blankenship's uncle, Tom Blankenship, has a 17-year-old granddaughter, Jessica Ambroe, who is battling the rare disease. The Johnstown, Pa., teen was diagnosed with it two years ago.
"Lafora Disease is a form of epilepsy that is genetic and there are only 200 diagnosed cases in the world and 20 in the U.S.," Blankenship said. "I had seen my uncle on Facebook always talking about his granddaughter, Jessica, and the disease and Chelsea's Hope which is the group that is funding research for Lafora Disease."
Blankenship said his uncle is active in fundraising for the nonprofit organization started by Chelsea's mother, Linda Gerber, and Barbara Goldstein in California at about the same time Jessica was diagnosed with Lafora Disease.
"Being that Lafora is such a rare disease, the government won't fund research because they consider it to be an orphan disease, so few people have it," Blankenship explained. "All their funds for re- search are through donations."
And what better way than to get the non-profit's message out, generate support - and possible donations - then to feature Chelsea's Hope on a NASCAR Sprint Cup car. The Airmen said after getting permission from Linda Gerber to use graphics from the non-profit organization's Web site, he was able to design the racecar online using a paint scheme in about a half hour.
"Everybody can't believe that it only took me 30 minutes," he said. "From starting from nothing to having it done, looking at it and turning it in."
"I wanted to have a good cause or charity (for the race car's theme) when entering Sponsafier 3," said the NASCAR enthusiast, who admitted to only dabbling with the idea of trying to create a race car in the two previous Sponsafier contests.
Blankenship said he only learned two weeks before Toyota Racing unveiled the car at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina that Chelsea's Hope was the grand prize winner.
Contest organizers instructed Blankenship that he couldn't tell anyone of his victory until the car was officially unveiled in mid-May at the All-Star Race Weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Blankenship said the car was officially unveiled on May 20 and broadcast on the Speed Channel from the Toyota Fan Zone outside the speedway's track the next day.
"They wanted to keep the surprise of unveiling the car," he said. "Here I am - I know I won - but I can't tell anyone. It was kind of hush hush."
Blankenship said it was thrilling to see his design on a NASCAR show car even though it never made a lap around the speedway.
Besides knowing that he helped raise awareness for the Lafora Disease, Blankenship received a genuine racing helmet displaying his winning design, Toyota Racing gear as well as an opportunity to spend time with Denny Hamlin, his favorite NASCAR driver who sits behind the wheel of the No. 11 Fedex Toyota in the Sprint Cup series.
In the third weekend of June, the winning Sprint Cup show car was displayed at a racetrack near the Gerber's home after Blankenship told Toyota Raceway officials that he'd give up his day with Hamlin if the NASCAR could make an appearance out west. Toyota organizers agreed and ultimately more than $70,000 was raised for the charity with a live and silent auction that coincided with the car's display at California's Infineon Raceway.
"I went to where they had the car on display and handed out fliers about Chelsea's Hope," he said.
So what does fate have in store for the Chelsea's Hope NASCAR?
Hopefully: mobility and visibility.
Blankenship said he's gotten word that the car is destined for a speedway in Kentucky as well as maybe even other raceways around the country.
And it is scheduled to appear at the upcoming Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Open House & Air Show slated for Sept. 17-18 at the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg.
Anyone interested in more information about the non-profit organization can visit www.chelseashope.org.