April 2, 2008 Edition

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NASCAR driver Tony Stewart autographs a picture for a very excited Nick Baiza on March 21 at Mark Martin Ford in Batesville.
Submitted Photos ~ Jennifer Brown and Lori Highfield

NASCAR star makes
dream reality for Baiza

Seven-year-old Nick Baiza had the experience of a lifetime when he was able to visit with NASCAR cup winner Tony Stewart.

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Nick Baiza, a first grader at Hoxie Elementary School, may have been the only little boy who wanted to go to school Monday when classes were dismissed for spring break. He had a very special photo album he wanted to show his classmates.

On Friday, March 21, Nick got to meet his hero, NASCAR race driver Tony Stewart. He didn't just get Stewart's autograph. He got to sit down and visit with Stewart one-on-one, got an autographed picture of the two-time NASCAR Cup winner, talked with him and sat in his lap to have his picture made. Stewart also signed Nick's cap and the race suit he was wearing.

Nick also presented a picture of himself dressed as Stewart to his hero, and autographed the photo for Stewart, as well.

Nick traveled to Batesville with his parents and his aunt, Jennifer Brown, to attend Fan Appreciation Days at Mark Martin Ford. This was the fourth year for NASCAR driver Mark Martin to bring other drivers to meet race fans in his hometown.

Nick has been a Stewart fan for four years and will gladly tell you that Tony Stewart is his hero. Although his parents have not been big NASCAR fans, Nick has watched the races with his grandparents, Ricky and Vicki Hampton, and his aunt and uncle, Tommy and Jennifer Brown, and occasionally at home with his mom and dad.

"He chose Stewart as his favorite driver all by himself," his mother, Judy Baiza said. And there is no doubt, Nick is a huge Stewart fan.

"I like Tony because he wins a lot," Nick says with a sweet smile and a twinkle in his eye. "He makes a lot of smoke when he wins," Nick adds as his smile broadens and his twinkle brightens. He is describing the burnout the winning driver makes at the end of each race.

"Sometimes they 'get loose' and 'get in the wall,' and they turn over on their side," Nick says, using NASCAR jargon. Like a lot of NASCAR fans, he enjoys watching the spectacular crashes the drivers dread.

"If Stewart gets wrecked, Nick doesn't get too upset," Felipe Baiza, Nick's dad said. "He just hopes the wreck won't be bad enough to put him out of the race for the rest of the day." And, there's always another chance for Stewart to win the next week.

Stewart is sometimes called the bad boy of racing because of his quick temper and outspoken ways, but he won the hearts of Nick's family and friends who were in the room when Nick met him.

"He just started talking to Nick like he had known him all his life," said Nick's aunt, Jennifer. "He treated Nick like he was the only one in the room ~ it was all about Nick."

Lori Highfield, Jennifer's coworker and friend, and her daughter Christin were among Nick's entourage. Jennifer and Lori said they took as many pictures as they could get so Nick would be sure to have plenty.

"Stewart told me I was like the paparazzi," Lori said. "He was very nice to Nick and to all of us."

Nick was diagnosed with a mild form of neurofibromatosis (NF1) when he was five years old. The disorder affects the peripheral nervous system and can cause tumors to develop from nerve tissue. Benign growths called neurofibromas can develop throughout the body, which can cause bone abnormalities. One in 4,000 people develop the disorder.

Every three months Nick goes to Children's Hospital to have CT scans. He currently has cranial fluid in his brain, and his doctors have to make sure the amount of fluid doesn't increase and cause more problems.

Nick's mother Judy said that his muscles are underdeveloped. "It takes twice as long for him to do the things other children his age do. He becomes fatigued easily," she said. "He also takes speech and physical therapy, but his cognitive skills are okay."

In order for Nick to have an opportunity to meet Stewart, a lot of people put their heads together and came up with a plan. His aunt works at Regal Treatment in Walnut Ridge, and she and her co-workers were trying to figure out a way for Nick to get Stewart's autograph. Thousands of people attend Fan Appreciation Days each year from all over the U.S. and other countries.

The ladies knew how long the lines would be for NASCAR fans waiting to get a chance for an autograph, and they knew Nick couldn't stand in line for an extended period of time.

Regal Treatment client Pauline Howard of Walnut Ridge suggested they call State Rep. J.R. Rogers and see if he could help them. Jennifer called Rep. Rogers, who in turn called Mark Martin Ford and asked them to make sure Nick would get the autograph he wanted.

"We thought we would probably get to move to the front of the line when Stewart began autographing," Jennifer said.

"We were surprised and thrilled when they took Nick into a room to meet with Stewart one-on-one."

Everyone who went with Nick that day was very touched by the crew at Mark Martin Ford. "They were wonderful to Nick, and Vic Davidson, sales manager at the dealership, was so nice to arrange the meeting," Jennifer said. "They were great."

Nick also came home with a Mark Martin flag and an autographed picture of Martin.

KISS FM radio personnel took a picture of Nick and Stewart and put it up on their MySpace page. Two women from Hooter's Restaurant in North Little Rock asked Nick to take a picture with them. They told him they were going to hang it in their restaurant.

"Nick feels like a celebrity," his mother said.

Nick will make his first trip to a NASCAR race this fall. He already has his ticket for the Talladega race in October.

When he told Stewart he was coming to Talladega, Stewart was very pleased. "Sometimes when first-time fans attend a race it brings good luck to their favorite driver," Stewart told Nick. "Maybe you'll bring me good luck. I've never won a race there."

"I think I'll bring Tony good luck," Nick told The Times Dispatch last Wednesday.

Win or lose, Stewart is Nick's hero. And Nick's dad said after watching Stewart with his son, he and his wife will probably be bigger NASCAR fans now.

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