By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — They may not have been flying around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at triple-digit speeds, but a group of IndyCar drivers were still working fast one recent afternoon.
IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Charlie Kimball, Ed Carpenter, Simona de Silvestro, Graham Rahal, and Simon Pagenaud, as well as Firestone Indy Lights driver Peter Dempsey and crew members, spent part of their afternoon last Thursday sorting donations at Gleaners Food Bank and serving clients in the organization's pantry.
"We keep fairly busy with things like this," said Rahal, noting IndyCar volunteers for other non-profits like Second Helpings. "Our foundation is all about giving back to the community. Being a resident of Indianapolis, that's important to me."
This was Rahal's first time at Gleaners. The IndyCar crew formed an assembly line to quickly sort food products into large bins.
"It's always cool to give back to the community," de Silvestro said. "Any way we can help is something I'm always up for."
An event like this also offers a refreshing change of pace for the race car drivers and their crew members.
"It's fun to just hang with some of the guys that you compete with every weekend," Rahal said. "Everybody's here working together. Racing's very close-knit. We all know each other through someone else. Even with NASCAR, if you don't know someone directly, there's always a connection."
De Silvestro agreed, saying it's nice to slow down and focus on something other than racing once in a while.
"We're so competitive that we hardly talk on race weekends," she said of herself and her fellow drivers. "Something like this allows us to interact and talk about other stuff."
Still, it's never too early to start talking about the Indianapolis 500. Even in December.
"Obviously that's the event we all highlight on our calendars," Rahal said. "It's the one we all want to win. We're already working very hard toward that."
The holidays always seem to be the time of year when far more people stop to consider the plight of needy people. Officials at Gleaners are more than happy to discuss their mission of fighting hunger.
"We're not busier in the sense of distribution, but it is a busy time of year for us because we take the opportunity to let everyone know how important the issue of hunger is," said Carrie Fulbright, Gleaners' director of external relations.
Demand for their services has risen exponentially since the Great Recession started. Fulbright said Gleaners, which distributes food and supplies to 21 central Indiana counties, delivered 23 percent more supplies last fiscal year than the one before that. In 2011 alone they served the equivalent of 16 million meals.
"It doesn't seem to be abating," Fulbright said. "We're still not meeting the need."
Cindy Hubert, Gleaners' president and CEO, told the IndyCar volunteers that the face of hunger also has changed in recent years.
"It's people like you and me," she said. "We're fortunate that we had breakfast and lunch today. Hunger is no longer what we assume it to be. It's not just some bum on the street. It's that family that just can't make ends meet."
Fulbright says high-profile events like this help spread the message on hunger.
"I think once people see someone they know taking time out of their busy schedule (to volunteer), they'll want to learn more about helping the hungry," she said.
For more information on Gleaners, including volunteering and donating, call 925-0191 or visit the website at gleaners.org.