When John Nikas turns the key, listens for the ticking of the fuel pump and presses the starter button of a 60-year old Austin Healey 100-4, he is acutely aware that, even with his high level of mechanical aptitude, soon enough he’s going to need help.
For almost a year John has been driving with a purpose, clicking off miles as if he were a long-haul trucker. And in every town, whether or not bystanders know the story of this special Healey named Grace, they wave, cheer and honk their approval. It doesn’t matter that Grace is rough and rusted; she makes friends everywhere, especially with kids.
The idea to Drive Away Cancer began when John’s friend, Mike Newsome, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. And in an effort to lift Mike’s spirits, John, with the help of friends from their Austin Healey club, hastily patched up Mike’s decaying, non-running 1953 Healey. John then contacted British car clubs from the Pacific to the Atlantic letting them know of his plan to Drive Away Cancer and that he “will need some help along the way.”
At the start, the odds that Grace would survive the Drive were less than zero. Many facing cancer must also confront these odds. “I could have jumped in a Camry and made the trip without breaking a sweat,” said John. “Doing it with Grace there are times I have to fight to keep going. This drive is representative of the struggle of living with cancer. Grace is motivation to engage in life especially in the presence of cancer.”
Fires in the engine compartment, oil pressure in the single digits, hail storms and freezing cold nights are only side notes in this journey. As the pages of Grace’s story are written, the heroes are the children they meet.
“Grace has missed public appearances because of breakdowns, but we will not miss a request from a kid for a ride,” said John as a matter of fact. “This is the most important thing I could ever do. We will drive for hours with the child sitting on my lap steering—we’ll go as long as they want to drive—and for that brief time that kid doesn’t have to think about having cancer or being sick. The mom or dad sitting beside us watch as their child laughs and smiles at the world around them. What parent wouldn’t give anything in the world to be able to do that for their child?”
As Grace drives back and forth across the country—and she is quick, that is, when she’s not wiggling a generator bracket to pieces—she carries with her signatures, photos and, yes, even the ashes of loved ones who have been affected by cancer. Grace carries a tremendous burden of sadness and grief on her gentle curves and does her best to drive them away, even if just for a little while.
Grace has been called a “rolling memorial,” and there are fans that revere her like a saint destined for canonization—just don’t try and sterilize her or tell her what she can’t or shouldn’t do.
John is a vintage car race driver, and together he and Grace stand up to any challenge and aren’t afraid to get dirty. If a car club has an autocross event, they will compete and take dozens of howling passengers around the cones until they’re told to stop. When California hosted a Mille Miglia tribute, they raced the thousand miles, finished first and received the Participant’s Choice Award. And, when a replica of an Austin Healey Streamliner arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Grace not only witnessed her historic distant cousin, she also ran with all her might all the way to 124 mph.
The rest of us may shudder at the photos of Grace covered in prehistoric salt, knowing the state of her thin(ing) frame. But that’s only because we want Grace to keep going, to keep filling kids’ lungs with laughter, and to keep driving away cancer.
What they have started must live on. And it will. There are others taking up the drive, giving rides to kids with cancer, and raising money and awareness for programs that are seeking to cure cancer. There are many classic cars out there (and they don’t have to be British!) that possess more than horsepower; they have the power to Drive Away Cancer. And that’s wonderful. We need more cars like Grace.
To learn more, visit driveawaycancernow.org. Or follow Drive Away Cancer on Facebook.
By David Stuursma
David works at Moss Motors, a proud supporter of Drive Away Cancer.