Story and photo by Patrick Reynolds

Daytona Beach, FL- “Hang on a sec. I’ll be right back!” shouted James Vance as he did a quick jog away from me.

Already suited up in his MINI JCW fireproof uniform for that afternoon’s race at Daytona International Speedway, he navigated his way through a crowd of people with quick precision.

Vance’s car was staged in the garage area with the rest of the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge field. Crew members were moving equipment onto pit road while fans milled about in search of driver autographs and their perfect selfie angle.

Vance danced in between the sea of wandering feet with his target in sight. He quickly ran up, squatted, and then embraced a little girl. The pair happily hugged each other in a reunion-style squeeze. The young lady’s family was equally happy to see Vance.

“She’s my little fan,” said Vance.

His young friend is nine-year-old Grace Beck. She is an ambassador for Race Day Foundation which brings children and their families out to various racetracks and series. The Foundation operates in a similar manner as Make-A-Wish except that Race Day does exactly as the name implies and organizes speedway events.

Grace’s mother Jill leads Race Day Foundation and said that her daughter is fortunately healthy and is able to work as a Foundation advocate.

Vance returned to where we were standing to speak about the race that was less than an hour away from the green flag. His excitement from seeing Grace carried over in his voice to address the BMW Endurance Challenge.

“I feel very, very lucky to be paired with someone who has a good head on his shoulders and knows what patience is in racing,” said Vance in regards to his co-driver Mike LaMarra. “He knows what to do and knows what needs to be done for us to win a championship.”

LaMarra was slated to begin the race’s first stint with Vance set to finish the race for the checkered flag.

“The amateur starts and the pro finishes,” said Vance. “For the last year-and-a half… two years, I’ve really been making a push to try and steer myself from amateur to pro driver.  In the last year-and-a-half, I’ve made that jump by finishing races and by racing against the guys that I’ve looked up to my whole career.

“When the amateur is in the car he’s usually about a second-and-a-half off of the pace of the pro. When the pro gets in, we’re able to race against the other guys that are relative speed to other drivers around us. It’s about managing the other drivers around you with the tools that you have available to you,” Vance said. “We’re all race car drivers and we want to go as fast as we can all of the time.”

Vance humbly complimented LaMarra as having “no ego. He’s easy going. He knows what’s best for the team. He knows what needs to be done. A guy like that makes my life really easy.  He’s trying to do what’s best for us, and what’s best for us is to get the car to the end of his stint with four corners on it and me to get in and be able to do my job by finishing strong.”

Vance and LaMarra qualified ninth in the Street Tuner class and finished the four-hour BMW Endurance Challenge in 12th.

Trent Hindman and Cameron Cassels won the race sharing driving duties in their Porsche Cayman GT4. They were thrilled in Victory Lane and then in the media center, but the happiness on Vance’s face may still have been even a bit brighter than the winners when he finished his hug with Grace.

“A smile on the child’s face is what it is all about,” said Jill Beck about Race Day Foundation. “Then I know I’ve done my job.”

Race Day Foundation works hard to put smiles on the faces of children and their families at race tracks. Amateur and professional drivers team up in the Continental Tire SportsCar Series and look to share smiles with their pit crew in Winner’s Circle.

James Vance worked hard with a goal to raise a trophy at the end of the BMW Challenge but fell short. From the genuine feeling that was shared between he and Grace earlier in the afternoon, I don’t know if the race win would have made his face beam any bright than his “little fan” did.

Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.