Cub Scout Caleb Sowinski put on a safety helmet and stepped on the lateral exhaust pipe of a neon yellow race car to haul himself up and through the passenger window head first.
“Took you a little while to figure it out,” NASCAR driver Scott Lagasse Jr. said with a smile as he adjusted the belt straps on Caleb to give him a ride to school Thursday morning.
Lagasse started his souped-up Chevrolet Camaro and — with a roar — performed a doughnut in a Walmart parking lot in Homestead before heading off to Air Base K-8 Center for International Education a few blocks away. Caleb’s father, Air Force Technical Sergeant Gregory Sowinski, watched his 7-year-old speed away with police escorts to school.
Caleb was chosen by the Boy Scouts of America council to represent his local troop for the Drive a Scout to School program, which aims to increase awareness of bicycle and pedestrian safety to motorists and the youth.
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Lagasse, who is the face of the Florida Department of Transportation’s campaign Alert Today Alive Tomorrow, partnered with Boy Scouts of America to support this cause.
“To me, it goes without saying: one life is too much,” Largesse said. “We want to get people thinking — change their habits.”
Carlos Sarmiento, FDOT community traffic safety program coordinator, said this initiative began about two years ago to educate and promote traffic safety for motorists as well as cyclists and pedestrians.
“We want motorists to be alert, put the phone down, yield to pedestrians and bicyclists,” Sarmiento said.
According to FDOT, 3,744 cyclists were seriously injured and 534 died in traffic accidents between 2006 and 2010. In the same years, 8,504 pedestrians were seriously injured and 2,520 died in traffic accidents in Florida. Miami-Dade County is one of the 10 counties in the state with the highest number of fatalities.
Lagasse, 33, is a Florida-native who grew up in the Boy Scouts and is an avid cyclist, so racing and promoting both for the scouts and bike and pedestrian safety is a natural fit for him.
The special car Lagasse uses in this program is a modified replica of his number 33 race car which he will be driving in the NASCAR season-end championship in the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Both cars are decked out with identical FDOT campaign and Boy Scout stickers. And for the first time, the cars sport a brand new color — “safety yellow,” which will debut at this weekend’s race.
In races, Lagasse hits speeds as high as 200 mph. But on Thursday morning, he followed the school zone speed limits.
At the school, dozens of children cheered as they saw the motorcade approaching up the street. Lagasse pulled out Caleb, who was wearing his Scout uniform and badges, along with the helmet he’d get to take home as a souvenir.
“Can I be in the race with you this weekend?” he asked Lagasse after the ride.
Caleb’s father, who drove over to wait for him at the school, was excited for his son — even a little jealous.
“I wish I was in the car,” he said laughing.