Ferrari dealer lets kids fighting cancer take laps around a racetrack

Jose Lopez, 10, sits on his mom Ady Escobar’s lap as Dawson County Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Blackstrap holds the microphone so he can pretend he’s pulling someone over, during Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday morning. The event gives sick children a chance to ride around Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville in sports cars. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Jose Lopez, 10, sits on his mom Ady Escobar’s lap as Dawson County Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Blackstrap holds the microphone so he can pretend he’s pulling someone over, during Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday morning. The event gives sick children a chance to ride around Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville in sports cars. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Annual ‘Rides to Remember’ event, nixed last year because of COVID, resumes in North Georgia

DAWSONVILLE — The COVID-19 pandemic has made the hard life of 10-year-old Jose Lopez even harder.

Born neurologically disabled from a rare genetic disorder called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, four years ago a leukemia diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments took away what little ability he had to walk.

Then the coronavirus robbed him of one of the bright spots in his life: having other children over to play. Most of his friends have returned to public schools, and his mother, Ady Escobar, who is raising him alone, can’t risk bringing COVID into their home.

On Saturday, his mother told him she had a surprise. “If I told him sooner, he wouldn’t sleep last night,” she said.

The two made the hourlong drive from Marietta to the Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville, where for two hours, Jose and other children battling cancer could pick from dozens of luxury cars, sports cars, muscle cars, race cars and police cars and ride in them twice around the racetrack, taking as many rides in as many cars as they wanted.

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Cars line the paddock during Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday in Dawsonville. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Cars line the paddock during Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday in Dawsonville. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Cars line the paddock during Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday in Dawsonville. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

He was one of about 60 children who took part in “Rides to Remember,” put on by Ferrari of Atlanta with help from several car clubs and local law enforcement.

The Roswell dealership started the event 16 years ago to honor one of the partners’ daughters, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer. “Rides to Remember” is mostly for pediatric cancer patients, ages 8 to 18, and their siblings.

Last year, the event didn’t happen because of the pandemic. It’s normally held in June, and even though it’s mostly outdoors, in mid-2020 there were still too many unknowns about COVID-19 to put vulnerable children at risk, said Craig Forbes, Ferrari of Atlanta’s general sales manager.

This year, the day at the racetrack was a welcome reprieve for parents with immunocompromised children, many of whom are too young to be vaccinated. The families who attended received word through the charities that “Rides to Remember” benefits — Camp Sunshine, Atlanta Ronald McDonald House Charities, and CURE Childhood Cancer. Children from Make-A-Wish Georgia were also invited.

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Sports cars line up for Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday at Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Sports cars line up for Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday at Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Sports cars line up for Ferrari of Atlanta’s "Rides to Remember" event Saturday at Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

This year’s event raised about $100,000, mostly through sponsorships and donations from Ferrari customers.

“It’s well worth spending the money and the time so they can have a bright day in their lives,” Forbes said.

The children had their pick of some 66 cars Saturday, including Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Cobras, Porches, Mustangs, MGs, Teslas and Audis. The cars were driven by their owners, car club members who volunteered for the day.

For his first ride, José chose a black Dawson County Sheriff’s Office SUV, because he loves movies and television shows about police, his mother said. He rode in his mother’s lap in the passenger seat of the SUV, wearing a wide smile, pushing the siren buttons and talking into intercom.

Drivers were asked to generally keep speeds at around 55 to 65 miles per hour. Asked how fast he went in a McLaren 570S, Aziah Simmons exclaimed, “73!”

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Aziah Simmons, 9, checks out the inside of a McLaren 570S before going for a ride around the Atlanta Motorsports Park racetrack on Saturday. Aziah was born with a restricted airway and has undergone numerous surgeries for it, his mother said. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Aziah Simmons, 9, checks out the inside of a McLaren 570S before going for a ride around the Atlanta Motorsports Park racetrack on Saturday. Aziah was born with a restricted airway and has undergone numerous surgeries for it, his mother said. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Aziah Simmons, 9, checks out the inside of a McLaren 570S before going for a ride around the Atlanta Motorsports Park racetrack on Saturday. Aziah was born with a restricted airway and has undergone numerous surgeries for it, his mother said. (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Aziah, 9, one of the Make-A-Wish kids there Saturday, was born premature with idiopathic subglottic stenosis, a narrowing of a portion of the windpipe. He’s undergone an excruciating succession of surgeries starting when he was 5 months old, said his mother, Brittney Simmons.

Though he talks in a whisper, he’s a ball of constant energy who collects Hot Wheels and is as much a car enthusiast as anyone his age can be. “We have an Alfa Romeo,” Brittney Simmons said, “and it’s not good enough for him.”

She had told her son Saturday morning that they were going to a math museum, only to drive about 50 minutes from Buford and pull into the Atlanta Motorsports parking lot, where Aziah quickly spotted the fleet of exotic cars.

“He was actually about to throw a fit right before we turned in here,” his mother said. “He said, ‘I told you we weren’t going to a math museum.’”

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Brent Landry waves the checkered flag as cars circle Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville during Ferrari of Atlanta’s annual Rides to Remember 2021 event Saturday morning, Sept. 18, 2021. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Brent Landry waves the checkered flag as cars circle Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville  during Ferrari of Atlanta’s annual Rides to Remember 2021 event Saturday morning, Sept. 18, 2021. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Brent Landry waves the checkered flag as cars circle Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville during Ferrari of Atlanta’s annual Rides to Remember 2021 event Saturday morning, Sept. 18, 2021. (Photo: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray