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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Daytona 500 champion, Ryan Newman saving lives of dogs across America

Dog lovers probably recognize "Marley & Me" as the title of a non-fiction bestseller based on the life of a beloved pooch bearing that name.

Harley & Me could be the name of Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman’s book, should he ever choose to write one. To be fair, though, Newman would have to pen several, given his lifelong love of dogs and chosen avocation.

Newman and his wife, Krissie, have four dogs of their own – Harley being “Daddy’s girl” – and the couple pledged $400,000 to launch the recently opened Ryan Newman Foundation Spay/Neuter Clinic in Hickory, N.C. The clinic will serve eight counties and offer low-cost sterilization surgeries for humane societies and other rescue groups who spay and neuter homeless pets before they are adopted. After opening in December, the clinic spayed 131 pets during its first week of operation alone.

Newman’s victory in Sunday’s 50th running of the Daytona 500 – to be followed by a whirlwind media tour including stops on national network shows “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Live with Regis and Kelly” – will only help elevate his philanthropic platform.

Newman’s foundation was launched in 2005 with animal welfare as a primary area of focus (wildlife conservation and auto racing scholarships are the others). Under the animal welfare umbrella, RNF works with organizations such as the Humane Society, ASPCA, Humane Alliance and Project Halo to create and maintain programs that help reduce overpopulation and euthanization of dogs and cats while also increasing adoption for homeless pets. Newman says 4 million to 6 million animals each year are abandoned or sent to shelters nationally and as many as half are euthanized.

“There’s 2-3 million innocent lives each year that can be saved if we help control their population,” he says.

In ways both large and small, Newman is doing his part.

Each of the past two years, Newman and fellow Cup driver Greg Biffle have used a trip to Loudon, N.H., to do more than race. The duo has transported dogs slated to die from shelters in North Carolina to New Hampshire. Jodi Geschickter, wife of JTG Racing owner Tad Geschickter, spearheaded the relocation effort, and six dogs have been saved in the process.

“She got it together with the people from New Hampshire for us to be able to take the dogs up there on our team plane. Thankfully, we were able to rescue those dogs that would have been euthanized due to overpopulation,” Newman says.

Climate can play a prominent role in overpopulation.

“Geographically, they are in a different situation than what we are because of their rougher winters. They don’t have the overpopulation; they have a need for animals,” he says.

Newman traces his affinity for dogs back to a childhood spent growing up in rural Indiana. His father, Greg, was a hunter, and the family’s German shorthairs were originally used for the pursuit of pheasant.

Newman says after he and his sister, Jamie, were born, “Hunting kind of went to the wayside.”

The dogs, though, remained as pets.

In addition to the pure-bred hunters and a black Labrador retriever named Misty the family had for 16 years, Newman specifically recalls a yellow Lab of indeterminate mix named Lady. As the only “non-trophy dog” he can remember in the Newman family, which raised its own beef, Lady left a lasting impression on Ryan.

“She would actually go out there with a good size stick – a four-inch log – and play tug of war with the cow. The cow would put the log in its mouth, and she’d put the log in her mouth, and it was amazing to watch. Things like that make good memories,” he says.

Today, it’s another Lab of dubious lineage – perhaps with some pit bull or boxer in her – that helps make new memories for Newman: Harley.

“She’s very needy. She loves attention. You can stop petting her, and she’ll just sort of tackle you,” Newman says. “I’ve always had a love for dogs, just wanted to play with them out in the yard, roll around out in the grass and go do things with them.”

Canines have always been constant companions for Newman with one glaring exception: when he ventured to North Carolina in 2001 to chase his NASCAR dream on a full-time basis. It was around then that he met Krissie Boyle, and what ensued was a case of, well, puppy love.

“That was a good fit. When I moved down, I didn’t have a dog and lived by myself and wanted to eventually get one. When I met her, I got Digger. Sometimes I tell people when I met Digger, I got Krissie,” Newman says.

Clearly, he met his match in more ways than one.

Krissie already had Digger. Together she and Ryan then found Harley in a store parking lot. Harley and Digger discovered Mopar, and Socks was later added to the mix as the family’s fourth dog.

So, is Digger “Mama’s girl” then, seeing she was the first?

“Digger’s always had a spot in my heart because she was the first dog that was mine,” Krissie says, but quickly adds, “I love ’em all equally.”

The Newmans do not have children, but don’t think their sleep is never interrupted. Socks, in particular, has a knack for jumping on the bed as soon as Newman gets to sleep.

“She sleeps by Krissie’s feet because I think she knows Krissie won’t kick her off, but I will,” Newman says with a laugh. “I’m a big advocate of getting sleep, so I try not to let the dogs actually overpower us. Because they’ll push you right out of bed. In fact, Harley’s tried to push me right out of the bed before. Usually, Socks and Harley end up on the bed.”

Thanks to the rigors of a 36-race schedule that spans February through November, the Newmans are away from their Sherrills Ford, N.C., residence a lot. The dogs typically do not accompany them on the road, and considering the relatively cramped confines of a motorhome, that’s probably a good thing for all parties involved.

“We’ve got 65 acres that we live on, and they get free range of that. They have a lot more fun doing their thing with their clique of four than if we were to take one or two of them away and separate them. They have a blast. Obviously, they miss us. We can tell that when we get home. Outside of that, they’re enjoying life for sure,” Newman says. “Without a doubt, we treat them as family. If we were to call them kids we wouldn’t be far off.”

Krissie says: “I call and check on ’em every day. They’re good kids.”

Away from home and awaiting his chance to qualify for last fall’s race at Atlanta, Newman crouches down against the center wall of the No. 12 transporter in a baseball catcher’s stance. Krissie stands little more than an arm’s length away to Newman’s right. There’s a collection of folks inside the hauler: team members, PR people and friends of the Newmans. It’s loud.

“He and the animals are very close,” Krissie says of her husband.

Gone suddenly is the cacophony of conversations. Only silence. Then laughter and lots of it.

“Want to get in a cat fight?” Ryan Newman playfully responds.

Earlier, outside the ear shot of his wife, Newman spoke of their Pit Road Pets book – a project that featured several NASCAR drivers and saw 100 percent of its net proceeds donated to help fund the new complex in Hickory – and his surprise of how many are touched by the companionship of animals.

“It’s been a very big eye-opener with our book to see how many people in the garage area are affected by a dog or a cat, either through their lives with a story they remember or currently … It’s neat. When you see the term unconditional love in the dictionary, there should be a picture of a dog or cat next to it. It’s like they never have a bad day when they see you.”

With four full-time dogs already in the fold, has the Newman household reached its peak? Depends on whom you ask.

“Krissie and I, there’s two hands on each of us, we can only pet four at a time,” Newman says.

Krissie is told her husband put the cap on canines at four.

“He did? Oh … well, I don’t think there’s a number,” she says, prompting more laughter. “There’s always room for more.”

Krissie Newman’s 2005 post-Hurricane Katrina tours of New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., left a lasting impression and has spurred her to rescue other animals wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. Working in conjunction with the Humane Alliance and Project Halo, Krissie helped transport animals from the ravaged region that people were forced to give up because they simply couldn’t care for them.

“It was pretty emotional for all of us,” she says, “Every time somebody would pull in and have to give up one of their beloved animals because they didn’t have a home and didn’t know where they were going, I mean, it was difficult.

“We ended up doing a lot of driving around New Orleans and all over Slidell to see the damage and try and figure out what animals needed help.”

So many animals do – and Krissie Newman strives to make a difference on a smaller, every-day level outside the spotlight. On more than one occasion, she’s temporarily taken in a dog in need and then found it a permanent home. After the Atlanta race last fall, Ryan was slated to pick up a golden doodle from Talladega for Krissie to drive back home to her native New Jersey for adoption with a friend of her family there. Then there was the black Lab puppy named Chip, whose fate was euthanization in Alabama, but who ended up living with the Newmans during a transition period until he landed with a cousin of Krissie’s. Currently, two strays are taking up temporary residence at the Newman household until permanent homes can be found for both.

“If there’s an animal that needs a home and I have to take it home temporarily and find it a good home or give it care, I’m not going to turn anything away. Dog, cat, it doesn’t matter,” she says.

Told she is always on the job, Krissie Newman smiles and says, “I don’t mind it. It’s a good job to have.”

Bob Barker, longtime host of “The Price is Right,” used to sign off from each broadcast with a reminder for people to have their pets spayed or neutered. While rescue efforts are admirable, Newman is quick to make the point that spay/neuter activities are vital in the battle against overpopulation.

“We’re trying to help rescue the animals, but the ideal thing is to be able to eliminate the overpopulation so we don’t have to put ourselves in that situation. We enjoy it, don’t get me wrong, but we’re only crutching the situation. We need to perform a little surgery,” he says.

Ryan Newman Foundation Executive Director Rosalie De Fini says the foundation’s work with the Humane Alliance centers on this premise.

“With animals especially, people have the heartstrings that get pulled," De Fini says. "So they think the answer is rescuing as many you can and taking them all home. They’ve been really revolutionary at the Humane Alliance because they see that’s not the answer to it. It makes you feel good, but you need to start on the front end with prevention.”

Personnel from Newman’s spay/neuter clinic in Hickory receive training in Asheville, N.C., where the Humane Alliance is based. De Fini says the number of animals euthanized was reduced in Buncombe (N.C.) County by 80 percent during the Humane Alliance’s first 12 years of existence.

With Ryan and Krissie serving as national spokespersons for the Humane Alliance’s National Spay/Neuter Response Team, the aim is to spread the prevention gospel throughout America.

“They really saw this concept and figured out spay and neutering was the only way to reduce overpopulation. It’s a pretty great group, and they’re a little ahead of the times in getting people involved,” says Krissie, who notes the group supplied a fixed rig for spay/neutering during her trip to New Orleans.

The challenge is greater outside of major cities.

“It’s hard when you’ve got a new idea and you’re trying to bring it to really rural areas,” Krissie says.

On a positive note: Having the Daytona 500 champion on your side can only help the cause.

– More information on Newman’s foundation is available at

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