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He’d rather be on the road, his real home for most of the past year, where for about 20 hours a day he’s driven across the country in “Grace,” a rusted British roadster a friend bought on eBay. Nikas should be touring America and visiting cancer-stricken kids who — with the rev of an engine and the push of a gas pedal — can take a ride and forget their worries for a while.

For the first time in their travels, Grace broke down and now needs her pistons repaired. And Nikas is stuck in Ames, worried that he won’t keep his planned visits to give sick youngsters a ride in his 1953 Austin-Healey 100.

On Oct. 11, Grace sputtered into Skunk River Restorations on the south side of Ames, where she is stuck until her engine can be repaired.

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A Car Named Grace

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I have never been one to name machinery. This is somewhat curious since there are few people in the world who likely have spent as much of their lives personifying machinery. Every ship I ever served in or boat that I sailed on was a she and while some of my cars have borne nicknames (the 61 Austin Healey 3000 BN7 race car which bears the moniker of “the Beast” springs to mind) none of them have ever held a proper Christian name. I have talked to cars, caressed them, lusted after them and occasionally cursed them, but never once decided to give one a name.

a car named grace drive away cancer

The car used in this drive is a 1953 Austin Healey 100 owned by Austin Healey Association of Southern California member Mike Newsome. He purchased the car sight unseen off of Ebay several years ago from Michigan. There are certain maxims in life: never start a land war in Asia; never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line; and NEVER buy a car without seeing it (I myself have violated this rule several times to my personal detriment). Upon delivery to Southern California it was clear that it was less than advertised.

It had been painted metallic grey directly over the original red with no thought given to painting the engine compartment, interior firewall or trunk. It’s body was comprised primarily of plastic filler and it ran like an asthmatic running uphill on a hot day through smog. Needless to say, Mike was nonplussed. He tried to drive the car a bit, but in its present condition it smoked like a convict on death row, leaked oil like a holed tanker and had the general reliability of an auto plant worker on the day after an all night bender.

Mike bought a 3000 BJ8 and eventually an outstanding 100-6 race car and the 1000 was shunted off to one side of the garage to whither away. Eventually, its delicate aluminum shroud became the preferred resting place for boxes and other detritus and its outer panels suffered the ignominy of ladder strikes and having crap fall from the rafters at semi-regular intervals.

There the car sat until a couple of months ago. California Healey Week was scheduled for Ventura and I wanted to go since my participation in club events has been understandably diminished by my lack of an operable Healey. Mike was kind enough to offer me use of the car and George McHarris and I set out to get it running well enough to make it to Ventura and back (about a 200 mile round trip). It had no interior at all lacking panels and carpet, the battery cover on the rear scuttle was just sitting loose letting in all manner of smoke and road debris) and it had dents all over the body.

George liberally applied several cans of Bondo and then rattle canned a similar grey finish over the patched areas and then pronounced the car good to go. the first time I sat in the car was when Mike (in his 100-6), George in his 100 and I left for Healey Week. It handled like a shopping cart used as an RV by the homeless which made sense because the 48-spoke wire wheels were all damaged and the bias ply tires dated from the Nixon administration.

Once on the freeway I discovered the overdrive was inoperable and I couldn’t coax more than 2800 RPM from the engine – it was a long drive but the car made it essentially trouble free and managed to return on Sunday afternoon without incident. Then things got interesting.

I wanted to show my appreciation to Mike for use of the car by getting it running better so I gave it a tune up where I found that the points gap was five times what it should have been (which explained the lack of revs). The plugs were oil fouled and the pressure was low. Every time I fixed something the car broke down on the side of the road. The distributor was shot, the battery connections ephemeral and the fuel system suspect. Over two weeks every single trip (usually of a mile or less ended in frustration). Then the head gasket blew – twice.

During this period that the head was off the car Mike found out that he had multiple myeloma. Mike was more than a buddy from the club. Over the past few years he has been my photographer, racing supporter and one of my greatest fans who it seems genuinely enjoyed watching me drive – especially it seems in this once derelict car.

The week following Mike’s first round of chemo I had decided to do something – thus the drive was born. The problem was the car was not running and it looked doubtful that it could be made to run in any reliable fashion. As we worked on the car with the guys from the club I told them that as unreliable as she was she always broke down somewhere safe and that in fixing whatever it was that had stopped her I uncovered something more serious that would have led to a catastrophic failure. When everyone called me crazy for wanting to make this drive – and make it in this car I had a feeling that she could if we just believed.

The day before we left (the car and I), Steve Kingsbury turned to me and asked whether I had had given any thought to naming the car. I thought about it a moment and gave him two choices – Hope and Grace. Hope is nice but to me represented something plaintive. Grace is defined as “favor from above” and one of my best friends shares the name. We named the car Grace. Over the next 7000 miles we would find out how appropriate that name was.

Drive Away Cancer

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Coast to Coast

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As each mile passed on the long road, it became clear that the trip was going to be much harder on the car and driver than possibly imagined.

Record heat, vicious thunderstorms and steep grades all threatened the drive’s success. Damaged, broken and struggling to survive, the car personified the battle fought every day by those living with cancer. For those watching the drive unfold (both in person and on social media), the uncertainty of what the next mile would bring or whether the plucky car and its stubborn driver could make it at all became high drama.

drive away cancer coast to coast

With each roadside repair, more and more people mobilized help from as far away as Australia, France, Canada and the Far East to keep the drive alive.

Over the course of 7241 miles, the car suffered through two gas fires, used over 250 quarts of oil and drove through rain, hail, thunderstorms and record heat – all without benefit of a top, windows or a functional windshield for protection. Seven roadside repairs and an on-the-fly engine rebuild saw the car through to the final goal – the main-stage at the Russo & Steele Auction in Monterey, California after nearly two weeks of virtually non-stop driving!

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Welcome To The Road

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drive away cancer signatures Well, it’s been about two weeks since we made it back and not a moment has passed without some memory of the most incredible road trip ever taken by a rust riddled car and its even more damaged driver seeping into my thoughts.


Gracie Drive Away Cancer Car

From the thousands who inscribed the car with names of loved one fighting or lost to cancer to the hundreds of others that I had a chance to speak with about their lives and loves, the drive has left an indelible imprint on me (much like the third degree burns on my right leg from the insufferably hot transmission tunnel).

When we first left the end of the Huntington Beach Pier and headed east the assumption was that when (or if) we ever made it back that would be it. We would return the car and get back on with the business of trying to lead out our normal lives. Now that seems almost an impossibility.

There are more people to meet, more stories to hear and (unfortunately) more names to memorialize on the car. We have other trips to plan, other places to visit and other ways we can continue the inspiration that this trip has become.

Almost every day since we’ve been back I’ve received messages by email or text from people struggling to survive or asking me to inscribe additional names on the car. These blogs will address some of the requests contained in those notes.

There are also hundreds of people to thank and I’d like to do that in detail so you know how many people made this drive possible and are able to say thank you to them when they cross paths with you in life.

Finally, there is another trip left in us (maybe more) and as we plan to get on the road again you’ll hear about what we’re going to do and how you can help on these pages first.

Welcome to the road.

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You can help us Drive Away Cancer one mile at a time through your donations which help keep us on the road reaching out to the community or by inscribing the car with the name of a loved one at a local car show or event.

Whether volunteering by helping keep us on the road, participating in an actual driving event or making a donation, your support is greatly appreciated and needed.

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