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Newman: NASCAR racer goes to the dogs

By Ryan Newman
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Ryan Newman drives the No. 12 Alltel car for Penske Racing on the NASCAR circuit. Since being named Rookie of the Year in 2002, Newman has won 12 races and qualified twice for the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

CATAWBA COUNTY, North Carolina (CNN) -- I have always been around dogs.

Growing up in rural Indiana, our dogs were indoor-outdoor dogs. When we went to the track for junior racing, we brought our dogs. They were part of the family.

There was one who I used to play with a lot. I named her Lady. She was a yellow Lab, and when we got her one winter, I used to kick snow up at her and she would jump up and down and looked like a polar bear, all white and fluffy, playing in the snow.

One Easter Sunday, we went to my grandmother's for the holiday, and we came home and Lady wasn't there. We never thought she'd go anywhere, but she did. Since we lived by a toll road, Lady didn't make it and was hit and killed by a car. My dad found her.

I still feel that loss, and think about it now and then. We were responsible dog owners. But even so, something like that happened. I wonder if that Easter Sunday is not part of the reason my wife, Krissie, and I have become involved in trying to do everything we can to help raise awareness of the population mismanagement of dogs in this country.

There are too many dogs around and people are not doing enough to take the proper steps to care for them, especially where I live down in North Carolina.

NASCAR is all about speed and action, bright colors, big money and intense competition. Being a driver is like living a dream for me. It's a great job, one that comes with many privileges, sure, but also with many responsibilities. People listen to drivers. So, once I started winning poles and races, Krissie and I wanted to contribute off the track as well.

To that end, we have started a foundation and contributed $400,000 to help build a state-of-the-art facility, the Ryan Newman Foundation Spay and Neuter Clinic in Catawba County, North Carolina.

We do our best to talk to people about the need to spay and neuter their dogs -- and about how if you are going to get a new puppy, you don't need to go to a pet store and spend $800 on a pure breed, designer dog. It's best to go to a shelter, where there are lots of wonderful dogs eager to be adopted, dogs who will appreciate you and love you even more, having been through all the trials and tribulations of staying alive!

Krissie and I have four dogs -- Digger, Harley, Mopar and Socks. They are all rescue dogs. Harley is a Lab mix, either part pit bull or boxer, and she's just weird. We call her "crackhead" because she's either totally excited like when we come home or just passed out on the floor at night. We couldn't have more fun with all of our dogs.

For some reason, maybe it has to do with the weather, the problem of overpopulation for dogs is not as bad in the northeast. In fact, when we went to race up in Loudon, New Hampshire, this year, Greg Biffle, another driver who works with animal safety awareness, and I flew some dogs from down South to Loudon where they actually have demand for shelter adoption. For Greg, his girlfriend Nicole, Krissie and I, that was exciting; we were able to save the lives of dogs who otherwise would have been euthanized.

There are many other foundations run by NASCAR teams and drivers. There are drivers involved with make-a-wish programs, with autism awareness and more. We wanted to make our mark with something that would differentiate us and settled on animals. It's funny, there are a lot of animals around the Nextel Cup circuit. To help raise money for our foundation, we put together a book called Pit Road Pets, all about NASCAR people and their pets. Some drivers bring their dogs and cats on their private planes and take them to the track. Driver Tony Stewart is unique in his choice of animals. In addition to a Chihuahua, Tony has a tiger and a monkey that he boards at a zoo.

I'm a big fisherman, and our foundation also supports freshwater conservation, as well as a scholarship fund -- the Rich Vogler Scholarship Fund -- named after a driver I admired growing up. So, in addition to humane treatment of animals, we support conservation and education.

I know that Lady would be proud of what we are doing.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.

Your responses asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.

My two dogs are pinning me down right now, which is why I'm typing with one hand. This story makes me really happy because I always hear about people (like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey) giving to charity, which is very nice of them, but I hear less often of people with means and fame giving to the most helpless, innocent and abused among us, which are the non-human animals.
Heather Klein, Aventura, Florida

I think that the money being spent on animals is ridiculous. There are people in this country who can't feed their children. Give me a break, $400,000 for dogs and cats.
Mason, Lee's Summit, Missouri

Even though I'm a Jr. fan, I applaude you for your love of the unwanted and forgotten...dogs! I've lost two chocolate to illness and one to old age and I vowed I would not have another dog. It took a year and a call from the Humane Society in Pensacola to remind me how empty my life was without a dog and now I have Kahli...another chocolate lab who was given up twice! She's such a sweetheart!
Cheryl Grace, Gulf Breeze, Florida

I just wanted to send a quick note to say that this article was wonderful. On the track, I'm not a Newman fan...I am now, however, a HUGE Newman fan for his off-track contributions. Thanks for putting this article on to show awareness for animals. I have 2 dogs myself, and I know the love that Ryan and his wife feel for their dogs. Dogs are so loveable, it's hard to understand why there are so many of them in shelters. If I could, I would adopt them all.
Nadia Isaac-Faulkner, Chatham, Ontario, Canada

As a volunteer for a dog rescue group, I am thrilled to see this article! The more we are able to focus on responsible dog ownership, the importance of spaying and neutering and more attention on the vast numbers of available, homeless pets maybe we can make a difference. Too many celebrities carry around little "designer dogs" instead of being a role model and adopting a dog on death row. Thank you!
Jessica Hudson, Mobile, Alabama

I think it's great what you are doing. Where we live there is a large feral cat population and over the years we have done our part in adopting and foster care. We have five cats right now and don't know what we would do without them. We think cats are just as smart as dogs, actually we have one cat that acts more like a dog, follows my husband everywhere and just loves to ride in the pickup truck. PS, we just love NASCAR also, try to attend as many races as we can, as my son lives in Mooresville and works for the OTHER team. ha...
Carol Ratliff, Savannah, Georgia

I'm very glad you ran this article. I wish more celebrities -- and more news outlets -- would take the time to discuss how wonderful adopting shelter animals is. It seems there's always a story about some empty-headed celebrity and their teeny little pocket-pooch. This leads to the over-breeding of unhealthily small dogs. Meanwhile wonderful, healthy, beautiful dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters every day. I've adopted three shelter dogs and one shelter cat and they're the greatest companions anyone could ever be lucky enough to have.
Kate, Los Angeles, California

I LOVE IT!!!!!!! We need more stories like this. Thank you. (Sorry, Mr. Newman, but I'm a number "20" cheerer. My brother gave him to me. I had to root for someone since my family is in Florida and major race fans.) Good luck on the upcoming races (don't tell Tony). And, thank you for what you do.
Kathy Purcell, Norcross, Georgia

Newman family

Ryan Newman and his wife Krissie with their dogs, Mopar, Harley, Socks, Digger, and Panda, a foster-puppy recently adopted by a relative.

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