Carlos Vieira began racing stock cars to help get himself on track. But for the past 15 years, he has been racing to help others – helping them deal with the challenges of autism, helping them stay out of gangs and helping them improve their lives by going to college.
This dedication led Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, to choose the Carlos Vieira Foundation as his California Non-Profit of the Year for Assembly District 21.
“Talking to Carlos is like catching a cold, but in a good way,” said Gray in making the announcement. “His enthusiasm is just flat-out contagious. If you spend 10 minutes talking to him, you find yourself looking for ways to help him help others.”
Vieira took up racing in 2007 as an alternative to drug use.
“My book talks about that,” said Vieira, who wrote “Knockin Doorz Down” as a memoir dedicated to helping others deal with similar struggles. “I would go on binges then be clean for a month. It was back and forth; it was a cycle of not being able to find long-lasting recovery.
“But then I figured out what I needed to do to change my life forever – it was racing. And then my foundation. … I’ve been clean now for 16 years, and I completely believe it is because of racing, my foundation and my brand.”
The brand is 51Fifty, which has included everything from his race team to an energy drink to clothing. It’s integral to how he views himself.
In the early 2000s, it was all about racing on tracks in Merced, Madera, Stockton and Roseville. But in 2007, Valley Children’s Hospital asked a few racers to help with a coin drive. Vieira and his team raised the most money that year. And the next year they raised even more – an unprecedented $25,000.
At about the same time, Vieira was having conversations with a co-worker about her son’s autism. As a single mom, her life was difficult. He decided to help, plastering a “Racing for Autism” logo on his car – where it remains today. He set a goal of raising $51,500 – which he surpassed – for autism-support groups in Merced, Madera and Fresno counties.
He also got something unexpected. “I started getting calls from old high school friends, from business acquaintances, from people at the track and they wanted to tell me their stories.”
The need for autism support was greater than he imagined.
So, he decided to form his foundation in 2010, and before long he was relying on his wife Aysia and key staffers Albino Moreno, Julio Valdez and Desiree Ybarra to run the operation. His daughter Elaina works as executive director of the foundation. There are also 14 board members and a host of volunteers involved in events ranging from a golf tournament to a barbecue to a footrace. There nine more such events planned for this year.
And that doesn’t count the annual San Joaquin Valley Portuguese Festival in April at the Stanislaus Fairground in Turlock.
The Foundation concentrates on three areas -- autism outreach, youth activities (mainly boxing) and the college scholarship program. He’s become so busy with foundation work that this could be his last season as a driver.
“Look, the foundation is helping me just like I hope I’m helping all these families,” said Vieira. “We’ve done over 100 grants so far this year. We’ve given out a scholarship in every county in the Central Valley and our boxing program reaches so many kids. Our Atwater location has 40, 50 kids. And it’s all free. They’re off the streets, not hanging out with gangs. It keeps them busy. People need a good hobby to keep them busy, especially if you get bored easy.”
Vieira was proud to be recognized by Gray. “It’s a big thing for us to be recognized by Adam,” Vieira said, “I’m glad to have him standing with us and helping us get the word out about what we do.”
Gray called Vieira’s story inspirational.
“Here’s a guy working with sweet potatoes during the day and then going out and doing amazing things -- helping kids, helping parents, helping everyone who asks. And I think he gets more joy out of it than anyone else.
“It’s important that people across the state realize that we’ve got people here in our Valley who don’t just talk about making a difference. They go out and make that difference. I’m proud to help however I can.”
In front of a group of around 50 friends, family and elected leaders at his the 51Fifty Fitness Center in Livingston on Tuesday, Gray presented Vieira with a framed State Resolution recognizing the Carlos Vieira Foundation as the Non-Profit of the Year.