23 July 2012

Resurrected Austin-Healey perseveres against odds, offers hope to cancer patients


It began with a friend’s gut-wrenching announcement and grew into a phenomenon that is gaining momentum — and fans — by the day.

When Mike Newsome told John Nikas that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, he feared he had only a few weeks to live. And being a classic car enthusiast, Newsome told Nikas he wanted to get his tired 1953 Austin-Healey 100 — a project car he bought on eBay — up and running again before he died.

More than a year later, Newsome and the Healey — aptly nicknamed “Grace” — are still pushing forward, although it’s Nikas who is driving the car all over the country to honor and encourage his cancer-stricken friend.

“When I decided to do this, I did it for one reason — to help keep Mike’s spirits up and give him something to get excited about,” Nikas said during a visit to the Hagerty Classic Car Insurance headquarters in Traverse City, Mich., while promoting Drive Away Cancer Day, set for Aug. 11. “He was really depressed about the news, naturally, so I wanted to give him something to look forward to.

“But I don’t know how the car does it. It shouldn’t be running, not with what little work we did to get it on the road. No wonder people have taken to it the way they have. It’s been an amazing, inspirational story.”

After the Healey was deemed roadworthy last summer, the 41-year-old Nikas borrowed it and threw together a one-man cross-country trip that he called “Drive Away Cancer.” Buoyed by the financial support of businesses and individuals, Nikas drove the resurrected classic from California to the East Coast and back, using 300 quarts of oil, 300 bottles of STP and 150 cans of ring seal during his 7,000-mile journey. By the time Nikas reached California, the car’s oil pressure had fallen from 18 to 2 pounds.

While Grace may have been tired from the trip, but she returned home forever changed — a symbol of hope for cancer patients and families affected by the disease. Early on the route, someone noticed that Newsome had signed the trunk of the car in Sharpie pen, and others began to follow suit, writing the names of loved ones who had died from cancer or were fighting it. Families also asked Nikas to carry photos or other mementos with him. One man even handed over his father’s ashes — the container is now secured inside the car near the passenger seat.

Supporters also began posting comments and updates about the car on Facebook, reporting Grace’s whereabouts in case anyone wanted to see the car for themselves. “They’d post things like, ‘Grace just passed Exit 42 and she’s still running,’ ” Nikas said. Then, to Nikas’ surprise, people began to stand along the roadside and cheer as Grace passed by. Sometimes they followed the car to the next stop so they could add a name or two. Grace now carries nearly 10,000 inscriptions.

“One day while I was in Arkansas, I drove past a girl riding in the backseat of a car who had written on an envelope, ‘I’m 15. I have cancer. Will you talk to me?’ So I pulled over at the next exit and we talked for awhile,” Nikas said. “Her name was Amy de los Santos and she was just coming from chemotherapy. With her mother’s permission, she was the first kid with cancer that I gave a ride to. She was so happy in that car — laughing and smiling. For those few minutes, she forgot she was sick.”

When it came time for Amy to sign the car, she drew a horse and the words “Go like the wind.” Touched by the girl’s emotional reaction, Nikas began offering rides to any child with cancer who contacted him, and that generally determines his route now. He has given almost 800 rides since meeting “Amy from Arkansas.”

“In Tennessee, I drove a very rural road — first on gravel, then on a trail through the woods – to give a boy a ride,” Nikas said. “When I pulled up to the house, his mother started crying and she couldn’t seem to stop. I tried to console her, and she said, ‘You don’t understand … I can’t get anyone to deliver a pizza out here. But you drove 2,700 miles to find us.’ When I hear things like that and see the joy that Grace brings to these kids, how could I possibly say no?”

Amazing stories abound.

In a fast food restaurant parking lot in Tennessee, a woman approached to add her father’s name to the car, only to collapse in tears. Collecting herself she pointed to the spot where she had intended to sign and showed John that her father’s name was already on the car, added by her brother the day before in Georgia.

It’s no wonder that Nikas is on the road again this summer for an even more ambitious tour that he calls “One Lap for America.” It was planned as a 50-state, 50,000-mile journey, but Nikas estimates that when all is said and done, he will have driven the car 85,000 miles by the time he reaches his scheduled “final” destination, the Monterey (Calif.) Motorsports Reunion on Aug. 18.

“And to think that before last year she was a non-running car,” Nikas said.

Grace has received an abundance of publicity, despite the fact that Nikas has “never sent a press release.” The two appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” last year and will be featured again in early August. Nikas has also taped a segment for the “Ellen Show” and has been profiled in newspapers from New York to Japan to Hong Kong to Germany.

“It has all happened without a plan, without PR, even without a support vehicle,” said Nikas, Associate Editor of Vintage Roadcar magazine. “What you see is what you get — me and Grace. I’ve talked to a lot of people and received a lot of publicity, but I don’t deserve any of it. Grace is the star; I’m just the driver.”

Prior to this summer’s ambitious trip, Nikas received a boost from eBay CEO John Donahoe, who offered to create a page with information and an interactive map so people know where Grace is and when she’s on the move. Information is also available on the Drive Away Cancer website, through Facebook and on YouTube.

Nikas has fought, coaxed, begged and pleaded with Grace to keep going. The car has no roof, no side curtains, no carpet and is fighting an invasion of rust in the engine compartment. Nikas has burn marks on his legs from the exhaust that runs under the driver’s seat. He does his own mechanical work. He has driven through rain, hail and record heat. And he has put out 14 fires. “But no worries,” he said. “I’m getting good at it.” Through it all, Nikas sees Grace as “the perfect metaphor for cancer.”

“We couldn’t have picked a better car,” he said. “She’s tired. Sometimes she can’t make it through the day without help. Sometimes there is no cure for what ails her. She’s broken, but she keeps fighting. She goes out and does the best she can, and she can still do amazing things.”

Including winning the inaugural 1,000-mile Mille Miglia North American Tribute last October. Mostly, though, what Nikas does is encourage those with cancer and help survivors remember their loved ones. Sometimes it involves giving a ride to a patient or helping them forget they're sick. And that's something Nikas has been doing almost daily for more than a year now — offering hope through Grace.

“When we got her running again, we thought we were saving her,” Nikas said. “And all along, she was really saving us.”

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