Saturday, July 23, 2011

All Things Are Possible Through God ... and Racing, The Dakota Whitlatch Story

Dakota and Eddie Sharp discuss the race strategy.
Courtesy of Eddie Sharp Racing
 “If everybody in the world was like him, it would be a much better place.”

These are not song lyrics from a millionaire recording artist or a part of a script from a melodramatic primetime television show that is inexplicably popular.

Instead, these are the words of a mother describing her 9-year-old son who, despite a rare and sometimes debilitating heart condition, somehow makes the world a better place.

Dakota Whitlatch, a 9-year-old Harvey, Iowa native, was born with hypoplastic left heart, an extremely rare heart defect that left Dakota without a left ventricle. Most people are born with both a right and left ventricle, but Dakota was not, “which means the whole right side of his heart has to do all the work for him,” said his mother, Denise.

Dakota has had five open heart surgeries, most recently in 2009 when we had a pacemaker put in. I had the honor of meeting Dakota and his family last weekend in Iowa Speedway, where Dakota lifted his shirt outside of Justin Lofton’s hauler to show me what his father Barry described as “battle scars” brought on by past surgeries and the lump in his side from the pacemaker.

Somehow, though, Dakota seemed almost proud of them. Though the war is still ongoing, his wounds stand as a reminder that he has beat the odds, surviving a rare condition that the doctors thought he would never survive.

“They told us he would always be a vegetable,” Barry said.

In fact, Dakota survived, woke up one day, looked up at his father and says, “Daddy, did I miss Christmas?”

“Daddy cried,” Barry admitted.

In fact, while standing in the garage area of Iowa Speedway, Barry did tear up a few times while talking about the struggles of his young son, whose heart has stopped twice and was considered dead, once in the arms of his father. Who has to be hospitalized for something as simple as getting a tooth pulled. Who almost died after having his tonsils removed.

“Things that we take for granted, simple things, with him ain’t simple,” said Barry.

Looking at Dakota, though, you’d never know it. Aside from the wheelchair he sits in because any distance longer than a few yards can put unnecessary strain on his heart, Dakota is just like any other little boy. Bright. Fun-loving. Mischievous

However, there is one way he is different than most little boys: He loves NASCAR.

In fact, when joining the Make-A-Wish Foundation back in 2009, Dakota’s wish was to go to Daytona International Speedway and watch the July 4th night race at the track: the Coke Zero 400. Of course, Make-A-Wish made it happen ... and more.

Like most NASCAR fans, Dakota has a favorite driver: Kyle Busch. And like most fans, Dakota dreamed of one day meeting his hero.

So Make-A-Wish stepped up and arranged a meeting with Busch while Dakota and his family were in Daytona for the race, and based on my conversations with the family, it impacted them in a big way.

”Going to the race was his wish, but meeting Kyle was an added bonus,” said Denise. “We had a scheduled time and our wish granter coordinators down in Florida were there to meet us and said, ‘Ok at this time we’re going to go meet Kyle.’ So we went to his motor coach, and they had called and said ‘I will be there shortly. Make yourself comfortable.’”

“Well out pops this TV from his motor home and there are lawn chairs sitting all about and a barbecue grill,” she continued. “So Dakota being Dakota says, ‘Ok I’m going to sit down!’ So he sits down and we’re waiting for Kyle and Kyle pulls up on his golf cart and Dakota’s eyes just light up and he runs up to Kyle and gives him a big hug! My husband and I are like “Uhhhh!” You’re meeting someone famous and you don’t know what to say. He spent about an hour and 45 minutes with Dakota, talking to him. Dakota had lots of questions for him. He gave Dakota prizes that he signed. He invited us to stay and have supper with him but I couldn’t bring myself to sit down with someone that famous and trying not to drool and be a retard!”

Listening to Denise and Barry talk about Dakota’s experience with Kyle made it clear that this was more than just the average meet-and-greet. It was a lifetime experience that none of them will ever forget.

“He treated him like one of his own,” said Barry.

According to the Whitlatchs the entire racing community has opened up to them. Including one, Eddie Sharp, owner of Eddie Sharp Racing, who has made it possible for the family to enjoy themselves so much at Iowa Speedway for the last three years.

“That man, God bless him what he does for our son,” said Whitlatch. “This is my son’s highlight of his whole year. He looks forward to this every year. This is his vacation. We wait for this and he asks about it all the time.”

Even in the glaring heat of the Camping World Truck Series garage area on Saturday, it was clear the family was enjoying themselves immensely. Smiles abundant, with plenty of laughs and stories to go around. Including some brotherly banter between Dakota and his 13-year-old step-brother Bryce, who happens to be a Kasey Kahne fan. Neither brother is very fond of either’s driver choice.

“When Kyle Busch wins,” Dakota says, “he loses!” referring to Bryce.

In fact, race day happens to be rather rowdy at the Whitlatch household every weekend, with the family gathering around the TV set to cheer on their favorite drivers.

“People call us and are like ‘Hey, do you want to come over’ or my parents ask ‘Hey do you want to go eat?’ and we’re like ‘Nope! It’s race night! We’re watching the race!’" Denise told me.

Though Denise has her own favorite driver—Jeff Gordon—and Barry likes Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch is still the most popular driver in the household.

“Near and dear to my heart for what he did for our little boy,” said Denise.

Though Kyle Busch wasn’t at Iowa Speedway, the family was still there to enjoy their very first in-person Camping World Truck Series event, and headed up to the Featherlite suites where they would watch one of the most exciting Camping World Truck Series races all season while escaping the heat of the day (and eventually, night!).

“It was very exciting,” said Denise. “It was a nail-biter, on the edge of your seat. [Dakota] was jumping up and down cheering for the drivers to win and he just had a wonderful time. Even though the drivers couldn’t hear us because we were in a suite box, but he was cheering his little heart out. . . . He doesn’t care who wins as long as he gets to see them do a burnout!”

For someone like Dakota, who spends way too much time in hospitals for someone his age, racing is an escape. An escape from the condition that makes seemingly mundane tasks complicated. An escape from a condition that could potentially wreak havoc on Dakota and his family’s mental state, but yet somehow they have managed to pull through.

“If it wasn’t for God, we wouldn’t have gotten through this,” said Denise. “God has been there for us through thick and through thin. . . . I owe my heart and my life to God for what He did for my son. With Him all things are possible.”

As far as Dakota, he remains a personality all his own.

“You can have the worst day in your life, and you can look at him and he’s going to say something to cheer you up, to make you happy, to have a smile,” said Denise. “He always has a smile.”

And of course, “If everybody in the world was like him, it would be a much better place.”

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