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Gibbs event will hail one youngster, benefit many

- macooke@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, May. 20, 2010

After more than three years of pills, shots and spinal taps, Taylor Gibbs is finally done.

The hair has returned to the 5-year-old's head, and he'll no longer be taking steroids - those "yuck pills," he says, wrinkling his nose. Now his family is celebrating big.

The Gibbs family - known among race fans as the head of Joe Gibbs Racing - will host Taylor's Finish Line Festival next Sunday at the zMAX Dragway in Concord. Half the proceeds will benefit Levine Children Hospital, where Taylor received treatments. The other half will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central and Western North Carolina, a nonprofit that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.

The festival will have carnival rides, games, hot-air balloon rides and an auction. It will end with a performance by Christian artist TobyMac and a fireworks show. It will wrap up a race-heavy weekend for the region with the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday and the inaugural induction ceremony to the newly opened NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte on Sunday.

Taylor is the grandson of Joe Gibbs, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach who founded the Huntersville-based racing team.

Taylor was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common pediatric cancer, in January 2007, when he was 2. He had run a fever over Christmas and still appeared weak, said his mother, Melissa Gibbs. She took him to the doctor, suspecting he had an ear infection or maybe pneumonia. "I thought they'd give us an iron supplement and send us out the door," she said.

What doctors discovered was much more serious. Taylor began cancer treatments right away.

Melissa Gibbs said the family was surprisingly calm in the face of Taylor's illness.

"We thought, 'This is the road the Lord's asked us to walk, and we're going to start walking it,'" she said.

Taylor was in remission by the 15th day of his treatments, but the treatments continued for about three years to prevent relapses. If Taylor makes it to 2015 with no relapses, he'll be considered cured.

The money donated to Levine Children's Hospital will go to the Carolina Kids Cancer Research Fund to help develop clinical trials there.

When Taylor was first diagnosed, the Gibbs family was offered a Make-A-Wish trip to Walt Disney World, but the family declined, knowing they could afford such a trip. But as his treatments continued, the family realized they needed a break for Taylor and his three older brothers. They accepted and went to Walt Disney World in October 2007.

"They came back with nothing but gratitude," said Amy Laws, a wish director and NASCAR wish manager for the local Make-A-Wish chapter. "They were so appreciative and glad they took the opportunity. Then they were willing to help with anything we needed."

Laws began working with the family last summer to plan a celebration in Taylor's honor. It started as a small, family-oriented event at the race shop.

"But then it just exploded," Laws said. "It went from what was going to be a small event to a huge, wonderful celebration."

As word spread, more people, including speedway officials, sponsors and drivers, jumped in to help.

J.D. Gibbs, Taylor's father and president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said the NASCAR community has been supportive.

"As much as we battle on the weekends, it's a tight-knit group," he said.

Several NASCAR drivers will be at the festival, and perhaps even Taylor's favorite driver.

"Carl Edwards!" Taylor said.

"You're not supposed to say that," said Melissa Gibbs, laughing.

Joe Gibbs Racing's team includes Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano - but not Edwards.

"He just likes the Aflac duck on Edwards' car," Melissa Gibbs whispered.

Taylor will have a fire suit, made with logos from festival sponsors, that will match the show car decorated for the event.

J.D. Gibbs said the festival is the family's way of showing how thankful they are for those who have helped Taylor.

"But as far as he knows, it's the greatest party anyone has ever had," Melissa Gibbs said.

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