Helping hands in Speedway

Volunteers from the IndyCar community work on a house for veteran Frank Gazvoda in Speedway, Indiana. John Oreovicz

Frank Gazvoda is accustomed to watching members of the IndyCar community working on television.

He's not used to seeing them working at his home. But not just that: working on his home.

But that's what happened last week in Speedway, Indiana. For five days, a gleaming Team Penske transporter parked in a residential neighborhood at the corner of 20th and Allison streets, serving as the base for a project called the Speedway 5 Hundred.

The goal: Build a house for a military veteran in need under the leadership of The Fuller Center for Housing, a ministry dedicated to helping needy families not only find but also create a place to live.

Providing the muscle: the Pit Crew, a group established within the IndyCar community four years ago to assist veterans in the Indianapolis area.

Working with skilled trade professionals who volunteered their time, team members from Penske and just about every other team in the IndyCar paddock built a brand-new house for Gazvoda in just five days, literally within sight of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- a place near and dear to Gazvoda's heart.

Two years after enlisting in the military in 1990, Gazvoda suffered severe back injuries in a training accident while rappelling from a helicopter. A lifelong fan of the Indy 500, Gazvoda became acquainted with Pit Crew founder Trevor Michener through an Internet forum about building model Indy cars.

Michener suggested that Gazvoda contact the Fuller Center and go through the application process. He was approved, and fittingly, he got the news on a big day for any Indy 500 fan -- Carb Day.

Heather Rayka, president of the Central Indiana branch of the Fuller Center, says the group's mission is "to give a hand up, not a handout." So Gazvoda doesn't get the house for free. He will make an interest-free mortgage payment of around $400 a month to "pay it forward" for the next project.

"When you write a check and you know it's going to go toward helping somebody else, there's no better feeling than that," Gazvoda said at the house dedication. "I have to thank Trevor Michener and the Pit Crew. I can't tell you what this means to me and my family, especially being a lifelong race fan."

Indianapolis-based Performance Tire Service Company, which provides warehousing, logistics and service support for the Firestone tire supply in the IndyCar Series, rebuilt the garage on the property and raised the stakes in the unofficial contest for "best party garage" in Speedway.

Gazvoda's favorite IndyCar driver, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, even sent a personal video message of congratulations.

One of the most interested observers in the group of about a hundred visitors who gathered for the house dedication was Gazvoda's 93-year old great uncle Russ Van Treese, who says he's attended every Indianapolis 500 since 1923 -- the first as an 8-month-old toddler.

"Maybe the coolest thing about this whole experience has been being able to share my great uncle Russ with the IndyCar community," Gazvoda said.

When Van Treese and his wife visited the home build site midweek, IMS was informed of his feat of attending 89 consecutive races, and the track rolled out the red carpet for an afternoon he would never forget.

Van Treese said his streak was in jeopardy only once, when his wife was close to delivering their second child. He went, against her wishes.

"They had telephones!" he protested.

Van Treese probably never would have imagined the day when almost everyone walks around with a telephone in their pocket. Then again, he probably never figured his great nephew would be living in the shadow of the speedway.

It's too bad Van Treese gave up driving a couple of years ago, because he would certainly now have a great place to park for the 500.