Special Indy friendship goes the distance

Emily Mertz, Global News

Sometimes, race fans are lucky enough to meet their favourite drivers, but it’s not often that one-time meeting grows into a longstanding friendship.

IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and his wife Beccy Gordon first met Noah Johnsen when he was very little.

“He was a Ryan fan, and he was sitting in his stroller right behind Ryan’s pit,” recalls Gordon. “His dad always brought him over… every year, he kept coming by.”
Hunter-Reay meets lots of young fans, but Noah stood out.

“Noah’s just like I was when I was little,” says Hunter-Reay. “He’s really hungry to know more about Indy Car, he’s knowledgeable about it, and I was the same way when I was little.”

Noah’s love for the sport is obvious – and infectious. His enthusiasm likely helped turn a one-time introduction with his idol into a genuine bond.

“Noah’s a friend of mine. He is what the sport is all about,” says Hunter-Reay.

“He’s just such a great kid,” adds Gordon. “He’s an average ten year old. Unfortunately, he’s in a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop him, he’s just going for it.”

Noah has a disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which causes muscle degeneration and respiratory problems.

Noah’s dad Brent Johnsen explains, it’s “a neuromuscular disease that affects his muscle tone. So basically what happens is he just has really weak muscles and then they slowly deteriorate over time.”

Fortunately, Noah’s health has been quite good for nearly two years now.
“I’m good. I haven’t been in the hospital for a year,” he says.

“He’s had a good year,” echoes Johnsen.

And, just as Gordon said, Noah is just going for it; he has his sights set on a racing career of his own, in part, thanks to the inspiration of drivers like Hunter-Reay, who he first met several years ago.

“It was a long time ago,” Noah says. “I was standing by his paddock here, and he came over and he said, do you want to come in, and I said yeah, sure.”

His dad remembers the introduction well. “We came and met Ryan, and they kind of hit it off, and they email each other back and forth, and it just carried on from there.”

After the race, the two stayed in touch, and soon, they became pen pals, and fast friends.

“Lately, we’ve been emailing each other after every race,” Noah reveals.

“We trade emails every week,” adds Hunter-Reay. “It’s cool, it’s a lot of fun, I love having him around…he’s just a really good kid.”

Noah says he watches Hunter-Reay race, and then sends him a message congratulating him on his performance, and asks how his car held up, and inquires how Beccy is. Noah also sends updates on his condition.

Recently, one email from Hunter-Reay in particular had Noah pretty excited.

“He said, ‘hi Noah, how are you doing? I’m inviting you to be the guest of Andretti Motorsports.’ And my dad read it first and he’s like, ‘awesome!’ and I’m like yes!”

“He’s pretty much the local celebrity here,” smiles Gordon. “He’s been grand marshal for the Indy Lights parade, and this year he’s for Star Mazda, and hopefully next year he’ll be grand marshal for IndyCar; beat out all the hockey players,” she laughs.

So, for the duration of this Edmonton Indy weekend, Noah and his family are getting special VIP treatment, behind-the-scenes access, and of course – time with Ryan and Beccy.

“So, I get to hang out with the team here and all the people that race with Andretti motorsports,” says Noah.

“We try to do something special as often as we can,” explains Jade Gurss with Andretti Motorsports, “and he and Ryan really hit it off.”

While Andretti is pleased to help out and provide a neat backstage experience for Noah, the team says the credit goes to Hunter-Reay.

“It was really Ryan’s doing.”

When asked why this particular young fan has retained such a special place in his life, Hunter-Reay responds, “he’s a great kid to be around. He’s got a great attitude. He really wants to know more about the sport… I was the same way. It’s special that way.”

The relationship is special for Hunter-Reay, and it’s very meaningful to Noah.

“It means a whole lot to him. He’s absolutely thrilled,” says dad Johnsen.

With a team of supporters behind him, Noah has high hopes for the future, which his friends and family share.

“It’s pretty cool to see him light up at the race track, that’s the same way I was,” says Hunter-Reay.

Now, Noah hopes to follow in the footsteps of his role model, and friend.

“I want to be a racecar driver,” he says with a grin.

Read it on Global News: Sometimes, race fans are lucky enough to meet their favourite drivers, but it’s not often that one-time meeting grows into a longstanding friendship.

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