NHL player’s children design NASCAR Xfinity car to raise awareness for autism at Michigan International Speedway

NHL fan and NASCAR driver Ryan Ellis will have a very special and personally meaningful paint scheme at Michigan International Speedway on Saturday.

Ellis’s Xfinity Series race car was designed by Chris Thorburn’s three children — 12-year-old Bennett, five-year-old Mary, and two-year-old Oscar — to raise awareness for autism. Thorburn, a veteran of 801 NHL games, retired after the St. Louis Blues’ championship season in 2018-19.

Thorborn’s oldest child, Bennett, was diagnosed with autism when he was four-years-old. Bennett learned number recognition and how to count via his toy race cars. To further encourage their son, the Thorburns attended races at Michigan International Speedway every year together as a family.

This year, Bennett will feel the confidence of getting to see a car on the track that he helped create. It’s a confidence he deserves to always feel.

“We want to sincerely thank Tom and TJ Keen of Keen Parts, Alpha Prime Racing, and NASCAR Driver and friend, Ryan Ellis for this amazing opportunity,” Chris and Sara Thorburn said in a statement. “NASCAR has been a big part of our family’s life ever since we realized that Bennett was using diecast cars to recognize, learn and count numbers. We were very fortunate years ago to get introduced to the NASCAR family and have been huge fans ever since.

“The people throughout the sport are so caring, understanding, and willing to help no matter the cause. It truly has a family feel to it. We visited Michigan International Speedway four years ago and, with the help of Chris Biby, we were introduced to Ryan Ellis. This guy is the epitome of what we feel NASCAR is. Not only is he a great driver but he is so caring, loving, and giving. We cannot thank him enough for the opportunity he and his team afforded our family. Not only was it a fun family project, but the kids will see the car that they designed run the race and hopefully bring some smiles to the families that can relate to our situation but also raise awareness for the Autism community.”

Bennett Thorburn worked with his siblings to color in a model of a NASCAR on a piece of paper with crayons. The design was then scanned and then sent to Ellis’s team who then turned it into a stunning wrap for his car. The phrase “Be a Friend” was added to the lower quarter panel and bumper.

“I’m so proud to be running this scheme and so thankful that Tom and TJ Keen made this a reality for the Thorburn family,” Ellis said. “They have done so much with their sponsorships to do far more than promote their company. They’ve truly used it as a platform to help other people and put smiles on people’s faces. I met the Thorburns a few years back at Michigan International Speedway while I was working for Go Fas Racing, ironically on a Keen-sponsored race weekend. The Thorburns could not be nicer people – you meet them and immediately feel like you’ve known them for years and we feel so lucky to just be able to do something for Bennett and their family and hope that this brings some awareness to autism. My wife [Allison] works in the mental health space and this does mean a ton to our family as well.”

Ellis and Thorburn’s friendship led to one of Ryan’s most memorable sports moments of his life. The Blues’ legend, knowing how huge of a hockey fan Ellis was, invited the Xfinity Series driver to his Stanley Cup day at his Michigan home in 2019. Ellis, who lives in North Carolina, got a photo opportunity with the Stanley Cup – an experience the Capitals’ superfan couldn’t make happen during Washington’s Stanley Cup celebration a year before.

Thorburn even helped Ellis take a drink out of the NHL’s championship trophy.

Ellis, a longtime RMNB reader, played on George Mason University’s hockey team and plays on a beer league team in North Carolina. He attended a Capitals Stanley Cup Final game in 2018 and attended the team’s championship parade weeks later.

The special design of Ellis’s car would not have been possible without the support of the primary sponsor of the No.44 Chevy, CorvetteParts.net. The business, owned by Tom and TJ Keen, sells parts and accessories for Corvette owners of all generations. They have used their sponsorship for many charitable causes, including a charity drive for the Laughlin Family Foundation last year at Martinsville that raised tens of thousands of dollars to fight rare cancers, and have been loyal NASCAR sponsors for over 10 years.

“We’re very proud to be able to support such a great cause,” said TJ Keen of Keen Parts. “Bennett, Mary, and Oscar did such a great job designing this scheme, and Tom and I are very excited to be able to have CorvetteParts.net / Keen Parts represented on their design! We’re really looking forward to seeing it on track this Saturday and we hope that the whole family is able to enjoy this weekend and hope that this assists with Autism awareness.”

Saturday’s race, which will air on USA at 3:30 PM, will mark Ryan’s second in consecutive weeks. This season, Ellis has delivered Alpha Prime Racing’s best finish ever as a team, 13th, twice despite running a limited schedule. Ellis hopes to expand to a full season next year.

Full disclosure: Ryan Ellis is a longtime reader and friend of the blog. RMNB has sponsored Ryan in races in the past. We bring you notable stories about Ryan’s career because we hope to help him achieve his dream of being a full-time racer in Xfinity or the top series someday.

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