Seventeen years in the making, Santa’s Toy Run has helped make Christmas a little easier for those in need. Ron Rigdon, a NASA long-timer with a big heart, got the idea to fuse motorsports and his extensive charity connections to assist abused women and children in the Atlanta area. The aim with Santa’s Toy Run: Bring as many humanitarian racers together to donate toys and funds and participate in an unusual race weekend.
The spirit of the season played a part in the surprising success of Santa’s Toy Run in its first years. An exuberant crowd, a vast field of racers, and wild antics to diffuse any seriousness made the event a success. Each attendee had to contribute toys, funds, or gift certificates to be admitted. It’s rare when a racer is judged on his or her altruism before they have to strap on a helmet.
Santa’s Toy Run has grown in size and scope over the last two decades. Beyond the different stripes of racing fans, there are vendors, concession stands, car shows and live music in the infield, and an assortment of other attractions. “It’s a small circus — like a miniature HyperFest,” says Jim Pantas, NASA Southeast’s Regional Director.
Though rainy weather dissuaded some of the regulars from attending this year, most busy years see between 4,000 and 5,000 people. During the ride-alongs on Saturday, some mild rain delayed all the action briefly, but soon the professional drivers were strapping eager initiates into their cars. Afterward, roughly 150 cars filled the front straight to grid for the big race.
Grid positions were awarded at random, aside from the frontmost spots, which were auctioned off to the highest bidder. “It’s a race to learn race craft,” says Pantas. “We encourage everyone to push as hard as they can as long as they don’t make any foolish moves. We get some fantastic battles between drivers who normally run in different classes. The spectacle is something else,” Pantas declared.
As time has gone on, the fundraiser has spread outside the Southeast into other regions able to support such an event in the winter months. Nine-hundred miles east, NASA Texas was planning its own Toy Drive at Eagles Canyon Raceway.
“This year was our biggest Toy Run event yet” said Marie Adams, NASA Texas’ Regional Director. Now in their third year hosting the event, they were able to attract 214 unique entries across their HPDE, Time Trial, and wheel-to-wheel classes. Along with the packed fields, they had some 600 spectators enjoying the brisk weather. “We expected mostly clear weather. It ended up drizzling on Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. Besides that shower, the weather was wonderful all weekend,” she added.
With Toyota HQ so close by in Plano, NASA Texas invited a dozen Toyota VIPs to come and spectate and participate in the NASA GR Experience. Alongside them, over 40 Toyota owners took advantage of the complimentary model-specific course, which is included with the purchase their new GR Supra, GR Corolla, or GR86. As the larger-than-usual turnout for the Toyota drivers warranted the creation of a GR-specific run group — they usually are incorporated into a similar HPDE1 group — the Toyota representatives present were able to witness how NASA caters to their clientele and provide model-specific instruction as well as general driving instruction.
The two big charity events across the southern regions yielded aid for those in need and provided drivers a chance to get out once again while the weather was accommodating. For the Southeast region, they were able to fill not one, but two fifth-wheel trailers at the end of the weekend, roughly $25,000 in combined contributions.
A commendable cause and cheery competition blended into one: Santa’s Toy Run provides an entertaining spectacle for the philanthropic race fan, comfort for the afflicted, and a way to keep the rust off for the racer bored in the winter months.
“Your unwavering commitment has transformed Santa’s Toy Run into a beacon of hope, radiating joy to countless children in need this Christmas season,” said Rigdon. “Your kindness, irrespective of the size of the gift, has illuminated the lives of over 300-plus children in domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, group foster homes, and more. Many would have gone without had it not been for your efforts to support Santa’s Toy Run this year.”