It has been two years since Will Rodgers last sat in a NASCAR Xfinity Series car, but that will all change this weekend in Nashville.
In what could be some of his most important starts yet, Rodgers will partner with Sam Hunt Racing for a three-race schedule.
The partnership has been three years in the making, without either Sam Hunt or Rodgers knowing what the future held for both drivers. After Rodgers spent time in what is not the ARCA Menards East and West Series, casual pass-throughs in the garage led to a friendship with Hunt. .
“I got to see his program from the outside, and realize that it’s heading in the right direction,” Rodgers explained. “Sam’s a really great guy, he surrounds himself with even better people, and he’s just got the right head on his shoulders; somebody that can really be trusted.”
Sam Hunt Racing joined the Xfinity Series in 2019, and Rodgers began paying close attention to the performance of the brand-new operation. The team made a game-changing switch after SHR switched to Toyota with a partnership from Toyota Racing Development. Rodgers knew almost immediately that when SHR began fielding Surpas with a dominant engine package under the hood, Hunt’s operation would be a viable option for Rodgers for any future opportunities.
Fast forward to the 2021 season, and his vision for doing greater things beyond the race track is coming to fruition for the 26-year-old driver. Under a Liver Health Foundation that bears his name, Rodgers is launching RaceToEndHepC.com to raise liver health awareness among the NASCAR community. It’s been a project that Rodgers has been laser-focused on for the past three years, but that timeline is no match for Rodgers’ own personal liver health battle.
Rodgers was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis at age three, a condition that stiffens the bile ducts, while also inflaming them. There was no cure at the time, and no cure today. The diagnosis sent Shari and Bill, Rodgers’ parents who just welcomed a baby girl into the family at the time, down a road of uncertainty. For three-year-old Rodgers, the bigger details are something he can recall vividly.
“My doctors had to evaluate my symptoms and throw everything they possibly could at it,” Rodgers said. The diagnosis promoted doctors from across the nation to fly to Baltimore, MD, to view Rodgers’ case.
The family, natives of Hawai’i, were living in Maryland at the time thanks to a work opportunity for Bill. The move might have saved Will’s life at a young age, as the family was sent to John Hopkins in Baltimore for world-class care.
It took two years of treatment, with multiple liver biopsies and colonoscopies, for Rodgers’ symptoms to eventually became dormant. The news was delivered by Dr. Kathleen Schwarz, who became one of the primary doctors tending to Will’s condition.
“She stands in front of him and says ‘Will, your symptoms are gone! I’m going to end my treatment now, and I hope to never see you professionally again for the rest of our lives and shook his hand,” Bill recalled.
The moment sent Bill into elation, but as for the now five-year-old Rodgers, he began to cry. After being under the care of Dr. Schwarz, it didn’t register that a doctor bidding farewell to a patient in this fashion was a moment of celebration and not devastation.
The family relocated back to Hawai’i following treatment, where the love for motorsports began.
But… Hawai’i of all places? How does a kid from Hawai’i end up in motorsports, and not in a more water-based sport? According to Rodgers, go-karting is actually a popular outlet on the islands.
As Rodgers explained, “I windsurf, I surf, I do all of it. But in Hawai’i, you’d think there wouldn’t be any motorsports, but funny enough there is a pretty big motorsports community between the islands. When I was in the second grade, My mom of all people found out that two classmates of mine raced go-karts. She knew from a young age for me that I wasn’t into the regular stick and ball sports, always the shortest guy in class, I really couldn’t play football. I was always into cars, airplanes, and tractors, and things like that. She found out about the kart racing, and she said ‘We’re going to do that!’ ”
His racing career took off after his symptoms abated, racing go-karts and setting records in Hawai’i’. The domination moved to the mainland where he would participate in practically anything with an engine.
A handful of ARCA Menards East And Wets wins later, Rodgers moved to the Xfinity Series in 2019 with four starts. He scored a career-best 11th at Mid-Ohio for Brandonbilt Motorsports. As if he wasn’t busy enough, Rodgers became a team owner of Spacestation Gaming’s iRacing team in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Keeping himself immersed in racing was a key for Rodgers, even when out of the seat.
Now, with RaceToEndHepC.com through the Will Rodgers Liver Health Foundation, he’s ready to marry his love of racing, and his goal of raising liver health awareness. The three-year venture brought with him joy with the support.
What Is Your Purpose? I’m proud to announce my partnership with @GoodRx & @orasure, supporting our first campaign to advocate for liver health! Race To End Hep C will help drive awareness, education, testing and treatment for Hepatitis C. #racetoendhepc #nascar pic.twitter.com/OWZCGC5ZyM
— Will Rodgers (@willrodgers65) June 8, 2021
“It’s incredible,” Rodgers said. “We’re not to the finish line yet, but it’s really a hard work paid off kind of feeling. I had a lot of conversations with a lot of companies, a lot of different organizations that really believe in what I’m doing, but haven’t necessarily taken that step to commit. But now that I’ve got these solid organizations with me that truly believe that they are in the space to try to make this happen with me; I am so thankful and excited for it.”
The partnership for Rodgers extends to major names in the medical field including GoodRx, Abbvee, and OraSure Technologies.
It’s a rare occasion to see a NASCAR driver take a serious stance on an issue or illness in the medical field. Over the past few seasons, fans have seen Kyle and Samantha Busch raise awareness about infertility, while Rick Ware Racing’s Cody Ware has publicly has shared his story on depression and anxiety.
So why does the 26-year-old feel the need to prioritize liver health in the NASCAR space? It’s because nobody else will, and with his own personal experiences with his liver, the call is being answered.
“The liver health space has been so neglected, I feel like this is really my calling,” Rodgers said emotionally. “As cheesy as it sounds, this is my destiny. I feel like it has shown me that over the last few years.”
His destiny is taking shape, especially for fans at the race track. Through “Connect-To-Care” tactics, his foundation is ready to provide interactive environments for fans to learn more about liver health. Soon enough, fans can even take an HCV finger prick test and have results ready in minutes, on-site. Rodgers will also make himself available to talk with fans and those interested in learning more about his journey.
He’ll get his first taste of Xfinity Series action at Nashville on June 19th. With no experience in the series since 2019, he has made it a goal of his to be as prepared as possible without the cherished on-track time. However, Rodgers has been taking a serious look at mental preparedness above all else.
“When I raced those four races in the Xfinity Series in 2019, I feel like I had a pretty good approach but not a full understanding of how the series worked,” Rodgers said. “Now I feel like I do. Being there, and then stepping out of it for two years, I’ve really been able to hone in on what I need to approve on and how I needed to approach this. Luckily with Sam Hunt Racing, they’ve got a great relationship with Toyota, I am able to get a little bit of simulator time to prepare.”
He’s been preparing himself for driving, and he wants race fans to prepare themselves for their own healthy future, with a special emphasis on an often neglected part of the human body. The message from Rodgers is simple.
“Know your liver, a lot of people don’t even know they even have a liver, and if they do, they’re not sure what it does for you. It’s one of your most vital organs. So know it, understand how it could potentially be exposed to something that can hurt your liver. Be responsible – we all love to have fun, and it’s important to know what you’re doing to your body so you have a good runway in front of you.”
Fans can see Rodgers make his 2021 debut at Nashville Superspeedway on Saturday, June 19th, 3:30 PM EST on NBCSN.
To learn more about Rodgers’ initiative, visit RaceToEndHepC.com.