October 22, 2014
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From wheelchair to race car, Petrone has ride of lifetime
Ali Goodwin
Heather Meegan knows her friend Jim Petrone loves NASCAR and for Christmas, she gave him a voucher valid for three laps around a racetrack in a retired NASCAR vehicle. Petrone said he was excited upon opening the gift and Meegan noted that the experience was a dream of a lifetime.

Getting the opportunity to speed around a race track in a retired NASCAR vehicle at 162 miles per hour was the ride of Jim Petrone’s life. For his friend of more than a decade, Heather Meegan, it was equally as memorable.

During Christmastime last year, Meegan, who formerly worked at West Bay Residential Services, Inc. as a case manager and is now a registered nurse at West Bay’s Dawn Drive location in Johnston, a home for individuals with developmental and physical disabilities, purchased a Groupon valid for three laps in a race car around the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for Petrone, an avid NASCAR fan.

Petrone, who has cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that involves brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking, was overjoyed to receive the gift.

“I was very excited,” he said via a DynaVox 3100, a computerized communication device. “She knows I love NASCAR.”

Seeing his ecstatic expression when he opened it, said Meegan, was “unbelievably awesome.” Though she did not go for the ride with him, she accompanied him to the event.

“I brought him the gift on Christmas morning,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘It’s going to be great to give him this gift, but it’s going to be even better to go with him, as well, and make it a mini-vacation.’ I wanted to see it happen and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful day and I just loved that I could be a part of it.”

A coworker at Dawn Drive alerted Meegan of the Groupon, as it’s a known fact that Petrone loves NASCAR.

“I saw it and said, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to do this,’” said Meegan, who used to serve as Petrone’s case manager. Despite her career change, the two continue to be close, as Meegan regularly visits him when she’s not too tired from working third shift.

Petrone’s ride was scheduled for Sept. 15 and he had been patiently counting down the days. When the big day finally arrived, he got more than he bargained for, as the driver, Will Wall, took him around the track six times, as opposed to three.

“They put me in the race car and the driver took it easy the first three times but they asked me, ‘Do you want to go again?’ and I said ‘Yes,’ and we went 162 [miles per hour],” he said.

While Petrone was eager for the ride, Meegan was slightly apprehensive. She worried that the staff members would have difficulty with maneuvering him into the car. To her relief, they were accommodating and gracious.

“Will Wall was wonderful,” Meegan said. “After they went around three times the first time around, [Wall] got out of the car and said to me, ‘Do you know the name Ride Away? and I said, ‘No.’ He goes, ‘That’s the company I work for and I make wheelchairs, ramps – things for people with disabilities.’ I said, ‘It was meant to be,’ and he said, ‘It’s an honor to have him in my car.’ So, it wasn’t just going for the ride, it was the people that were there that made it so incredible. It gives me chills just talking about it.”

Petrone agreed.

“The NASCAR staff was awesome,” he said. “They were helping to put me in the car and the driver was fantastic.”

Not only was the staff enthusiastic, other spectators were, as well. After Petrone was dressed in a professional fire-resistant suit and racing helmet and began his ride, they started snapping photos of him. Also, guests flocked around Meegan.

“They kept coming up to me and asking, ‘What’s his story?’ and I told everyone that he had been waiting nine months for this to happen,” she said. “When he got out of the car, the crowd was going nuts clapping and cheering for him. Just having a crowd of strangers watching him and understanding the extent of what a great day it was great. I’m ecstatic and happy beyond words.”

The ride was scheduled for three full laps, which is standard for ticket holders. But for Petrone, a video camera operator responsible to document each ride claimed he forgot to press “record” and Petrone was allowed to take another three laps to capture the experience.

After the staff helped him out of the car, he took a small victory lap in his motorized chair, and the crowd continuing to cheer him on.

Doreen Viara, assistant manager of the day program at West May Residential, said it was all he talked about upon returning to the facility.

“When he came back, he was telling everyone about it,” she said.

For reasons he’s not sure of, Petrone said the speed helps him relax.

“I don’t know why, but it calms me down,” he said.

The Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, an organization that focuses on providing authentic racing experiences to NASCAR fans, books the rides. Wallace, a former NASCAR driver, along with TRIAD Racing Technologies, help to make the events possible. Together, they promise to give people a thrill they will never forget.

Petrone said his father sparked his interest for NASCAR. He tunes in every Sunday, and some Saturday nights, to watch his favorite driver, Jimmy Johnson.

“My dad was watching these cars and I didn’t know what was going on, but one Sunday I watched a race with my dad and he talked about it,” Petrone said. He’s also attended two NASCAR races in the past.

Aside from his deep love of NASCAR, Petrone also enjoys helping others. He regularly teaches other people with speech deficits, including children, at Meeting Street School in Providence.

For Meegan, seeing Petrone happy was the best gift anyone could have given her.

“To sum it up, it was the dream of a lifetime for him,” she said, fighting tears. “To know that I had a part of it is an incredible feeling.”

West Bay Residential Services, Inc. provides care and residential support services to more than 130 individuals with developmental disabilities. West Bay helps their clients make daily choices, maintain friend and family relationships and have fun while establishing their role in the community.


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