When professional NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson is gearing up for his next race, his biggest fan, Beau Smith, often hangs out in the pit, right by his side.
Beau, of Rehoboth Beach, was born with an undiagnosed connective tissue disorder that affects his lungs, intestines, kidneys, heart, bones and other parts of his body. He requires help for many basic functions—he needs an oxygen tank to breathe, for example—and he travels mostly by wheelchair. Watching NASCAR helped Beau through the early years of his life.
“He wasn’t that active when he was younger, and we would, a lot of times, be sitting down in front of the TV or in the hospital,” says his mother, Maureen Smith. “And that’s basically what we did—watch races.”
Wearing his No. 48 T-shirt, Smith visited Dover International Speedway about three years ago. When Johnson appeared before him, Beau was instantly â€¨star-struck.
“Beau basically jumped out of his chair and ran up to him and gave him a hug,” Maureen says.
The moment was caught on camera by Fox Sports and aired on television that night. “It was the best thing of my whole life,” says Beau, now 14.
After that, Johnson couldn’t get Beau out of his mind. Johnson’s PR team contacted Maureen the following day with an invitation to attend Johnson’s next race at Pocono Raceway.
Now Beau is an honorary member of the No. 48 team pit crew. He helps with everything from pushing the car into inspection to checking the tire pressure. Beau was even given an official crew member shirt with his last name printed across the back.
“They’ve been so overwhelmingly generous with their time, and they give him things that we can’t,” says Maureen. “They give him things to look forward to. They make him feel like he’s part of something big. They â€¨totally make his dreams come true.”