Despite payday of dreams -- racer gives half of it away

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 18, 2012 

PHOTO BY ALISON WILLIAMS

Kevin O'Brien of Beaufort likes to race four-cylinder Honda Preludes on red-clay tracks.

It's not the glamorous world of NASCAR he dreamed about as a boy racing go-carts. It's a world of dim lights, cut tires, mud, testosterone and adrenaline. O'Brien has been racing a No. 44 car since he was 16, and he turned 30 this year.

A typical winner's check is a few hundred dollars. He once rolled home with an electric guitar for winning a race sponsored by Pooler Pawn & Diamond. He won a turkey in a Thanksgiving race.

But last month, when O'Brien grabbed $8,000 in his biggest win ever, he gave half of it away.

With a few quiet keyboard clicks, he donated $4,000 to breast cancer research.

O'Brien was a first-grader at Shell Point Elementary School when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Karen O'Brien was a stay-at-home mom on all the field trips, always at school and the ball park for her boys, Kevin and Timmy. Kevin remembers his mom getting real sick. He didn't know what was going on. Somebody else gave him a ride to baseball practice. She wasn't at the games.

But she beat it. She got better. Then she died when Kevin was in fifth grade. He said it was an accident; she drowned in a hot tub they got to try to soothe health problems left over from chemotherapy.

Maybe his mom flashed through O'Brien's mind as he stood on top of his bright yellow Honda with an oversized cardboard check at the Screven Motor Speedway in Sylvania, Ga. Ninety cars came from 15 states to run the 100-lap Renegade 4 Battle Royale at the Georgia State Outlaw Championship.

For O'Brien, it was his 14th win in 20 races this year. He calls it honing his craft, which is working with his father, Tommy O'Brien, trying to make cars run right and reliably at O'Brien's Professional Auto Service on Savannah Highway.

Both Tommy and Karen were Marine Corps kids whose families ended up in Beaufort. Kevin said his father used to race and "wanted something to keep me focused and keep me active so I wouldn't take the troubled road."

But why did he give half of his big prize away?

"I wanted to do something meaningful with part of it," O'Brien said. "You can spend money and have nothing to show for it. It's something I've always wanted to be in a position to do and here it fell into my lap. It seemed like one of the right things to do."

He thought about how breast cancer is so prevalent and how it affected his mother. He decided that the checkered flag came with personal responsibility.

"It was a good opportunity," he said, "to do something that could help a lot of people."

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