Michael J. Fox Foundation Board member Sonny Whelen was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago. An amateur turned professional race car driver, Sonny competes in a variety of racing series including the Viper Racing League, the Pirelli World Challenge and the Grand Am Rolex Series. He currently drives a Corvette, and has won two national championships in the Viper Racing League, as well as finishing regularly in the top 10-15 in SCCA Pro Racing Series since 2005.
This year, Sonny joined Team Fox and is adding fundraisers to multiple racing-related events across the country. He will end his fundraising efforts by organizing a concert event in Connecticut. Details on each event is below.
Pro-driver, NASCAR series partner and Grand-Am team sponsor Sonny Whelen retires from racing to help Michael J. Fox Foundation find a cure for Parkinson's disease. The owner of the famous police and emergency vehicle light-bar and siren company Whelen Engineering, Whelen raced competitively with Parkinson's for six years.
Ending it where it all began, Sonny Whelen announced he was 'hanging up his helmet' during last weekend's North American Road Racing Association US GT Championship event at Virginia International Raceway, July 6-8. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease six years ago, Whelen, 59, is taking up a new challenge of 'racing for a cure' having joined the board of the Michael J Fox Foundation. None of Whelen's motorsport partnerships or sponsorships will be affected.
The owner of the Whelen Engineering Company- famous for its police and emergency vehicle light-bars and sirens- Sonny Whelen has created a motorsports empire since beginning his own racing career in 2002 with the North American Road Racing Association.
Whelen Engineering is the "Officially Licensed Warning Lights of NASCAR", sponsor of the Whelen All-American Series, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour and NARRA's Whelen US TimeTrial Championship.
He also sponsors the Whelen Engineering Marsh Racing Team owned and run by Teddy Marsh, which competes in both the Grand-Am Rolex Series, with drivers Eric Curran and Boris Said, and the US GT Championship for his son George and, until now, himself.
Whelen spoke of his decision at NARRA's Saturday night banquet, in front of many of the same peers whom he started his racing career with;
"It's common for people 50 to 60 years old to start presenting symptoms. I was 53. A million and a half people in the United States have it, about five million world wide. But, given this is an aging population and we're living longer, it's probably going to appear more and more.
Parkinson's is an incurable degenerative brain disease. When you have Parkinson's, the cells in your brain that create dopamine start to die off. That dopamine is basically like a grease for your car. Without it the wheels, the hinges, are going to get tight, and not move as well. You end up a bit like the tin-man in The Wizard of Oz.
The good news is, you die with it not from it. It's something you can continue to live with, and still do a lot of the things you want to do. After all, I've been racing a car for the last six years with Parkinson's. I've still had a lot of fun, and even won a couple of races."
Looking at the data [collected] off the cars, I seem to be generally driving as fast as I ever have. That doesn't seem to be a problem for me, but when I try to put my shirt on in the morning or cut my meal at night it takes a little longer.
I'm just concerned that, at some stage, if I was to keep racing and I was in an incident I might not be able to get out of the car as quick as I could in the past. I don't have any data for [analyzing] that, and it's not something I can really practice.
So, I've given myself a new challenge, and it's just like I am with cars- I'm not one to sit at home and polish them. I do as much as I can. I learned how to drive, to race, I started a team. I'm doing the same with Parkinson's disease.
I became involved with the Michael J. Fox Foundation, because they're devoted to finding a cure, seeking better therapies and funding the research that needs to be done.
Now I'm on their board, learning a great deal about it, and helping with their Team Fox fundraising activities. 88% of the money raised gets spent on research.
Right now, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki have agreed to match up to $50 million of what's raised this year alone. We're at $30 million and we're hoping to raise the rest before the end of the year. That's my new challenge, and I'm challenging all my fellow racers out there, too."
To facilitate this, the North American Road Racing Association will place a link to Whelen's Team Fox page on their NARRAonline.com and facebook.com/NARRAonline websites.
Those wishing to donate in Whelen's honor can do so by clicking on the 'Donate to Racing for a cure' button. All donations are tax deductible.
Whelen began his racing career with NARRA's Viper Racing League in 2002, after spending time in NARRA's performance driver education program (the USPDE) and time-trial series- which he now sponsors. He went on to win two GT-1 championships in 2003 and 2004, before moving to the SPEED World Challenge series, where he won Rookie of the Year in 2005.
Whelen, and his Whelen Engineering Marsh Racing Team run by Teddy Marsh, then turned to the Grand-Am Rolex Series, where he still fields a car for Eric Curran and Boris Said.
Last year Whelen came full circle, returning to NARRA with his son George when the US GT Championship series was formed. Interestingly, George also started his driving career with NARRA's entry-level driver education, time-trial and racing series.
The pair immediately made an impression, both gaining top-ten finishes at the USGTC's inaugural event at Road Atlanta. Sonny and George then gained a win each at Virginia International Raceway, and podium finishes at the Daytona Finals Weekend.
George Whelen has won two races this year. The first at Road Atlanta and fittingly he won last Sunday's US GT Championship race at Virginia International Raceway after Sonny announced his retirement the night before.
As a sign of support and solidarity behind one of their own, every car in the USGTC field at VIR on Sunday ran Team Fox decals.
Whelen's retirement from driving will not affect any of Whelen Engineering's current motorsports involvement, or his partnership with NASCAR or sponsorship of its development series.
Whelen's involvement with the Whelen Engineering Marsh Racing Team will not dwindle either. He now expects to take on more of a team management role, particularly with his son's racing in NARRA's US GT Championship.
Whelen has also reaffirmed his support to the organization that introduced him to racing, committing to again sponsor NARRA's Whelen US TimeTrial Championship in 2013.