BROOKLYN, Michigan – Facing a captive young audience occupying two rows of picnic tables lined with black tablecloths, Erik Jones smiled and spoke with a rare trace of giddiness in his voice.
“Are you guys ready?” Jones asked on a microphone while seated before a group of several dozen gathered last Sunday morning in the Graves Family Campground about a half-mile from Michigan International Speedway. “Are you on the first page?”
The silence from several children under 10 (patiently waiting with rapt attention and their books open) indicated yes, so the Richard Petty Motorsports driver got to work.
“A is for ‘Apple blossom,” Jones said, pausing to add, “The apple blossom is actually the state flower of Michigan” — the first of many improvised factoids he sprinkled into a 10-minute reading of “M Is for Mitten” (an alphabet-themed ode to his native state).
The event was the culmination of a whirlwind week home for the Byron, Michigan, native, who threw out the first pitch of a Detroit Tigers game, stayed at his boyhood abode and attended the Woodward Dream Cruise in downtown Detroit.
But the two most important happenings revolved around the new Erik Jones Foundation, which was unveiled last week in downtown Flint. The #READWithErik event capped a successful debut weekend for the charitable foundation, which collected more than 100 book donations in two locations at MIS and also raised more than $2,000 online.
Sunday morning was one of many book readings Jones has held the past two years, but this marked only the second in person at a racetrack. Since the first in March 2019 at Auto Club Speedway, Jones, 25, exclusively had done the readings on Facebook Live last year after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans for at-track events, which he said are “just a better way to connect with the kids.
“I hope that one of those kids takes up reading more and just is inspired by, ‘Hey, that was cool. I think it’s cool that Erik likes to read, and now I want to read more books,’ ” Jones told NBC Sports. “So that’s what I hope they get from it.
“I never had that one moment where somebody was like, ‘Oh, that guy reads a lot. I think that’s really cool. I want to read more.’ I just naturally was reading myself. So if I can be that guy that inspires someone to read more, I think that’s pretty cool.”
Jones has been a voracious reader since childhood when his late father began reading to him nightly. They started with children’s books but eventually moved onto adult fare that focused on biographies. The lives of General Motors founder Billy Durant, the Wright Brothers and Jeff Gordon resonated from those bedtime sessions.
“Books that were too advanced to read myself, but him reading them to me, they made a lot more sense,” Jones said. “It was something I just enjoyed in bonding with my dad.”
It’s one of multiple ways the foundation has been driven by the memory of Dave Jones, who died June 7, 2016 three months after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer.
Erik Jones has made early cancer detection care another focus of his foundation.
“I’ve always been doing stuff with reading since I started getting into NASCAR,” he said. “Losing my dad to cancer started getting me involved with that world.”
This is about more than racing. 👏
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 22, 2021
The third tier of the Erik Jones Foundation is aimed at supporting animals, which is no surprise for Jones, whose German Shepherd, Oscar, is a frequent star of the driver’s social media accounts. “I’ve been an animal lover my whole life, and we’ve worked with shelters the last five years,” he said.
One of the primary concepts of the foundation is to formalize the work Jones already had been doing to promote reading, cancer awareness and dog adoption.
“Really the foundation was built from things I’ve been doing the last five years on my own, donating to different foundations, supporting different foundations,” he said. “That’s how all those things came together. They’re three different parts of my life of things I really cared about. When I meet new people, these are things I talk about a lot, essentially. And that’s where it all came from.
“I want to be able to have a better platform to do it. There’s just things that I really care about enough that I want to be able to give back to, wherever I am in racing. I’m still at a point that I’m fortunate enough to live my dream in racing, and that’s been awesome. And I’m at a point where I feel I can give back to the community.”
The Erik Jones Foundation’s first official financial donation was to the Genesee District Library, a system of 19 locations based in Flint that has an online challenge for reading 1,000 books to children before they start kindergarten.
The timing of his foundation’s formation is notable because of his career trajectory. Many NASCAR stars have started foundations after reaching first-tier teams (and increasing their seven-figure earnings potential).
After three seasons at NASCAR’s premier level with Joe Gibbs Racing (and a rookie season with Furniture Row Racing), Jones is putting a greater effort behind his philanthropy after moving from a powerhouse four-car championship contender to a single-car team with only one playoff appearance in seven years.
Jones said the career moves don’t impact his charitable vision, though.
“My dream was to race for a living and race in NASCAR, and I’ve gotten to do that since 2017 in Cup Series,” he said. “It really doesn’t change my outlook at all. Especially I’m still young. I’m 25 still. Some people forget that sometimes. I feel like I’ve still got a lot of years in the sport and want to be here for a long time ahead. And getting the foundation started at a young age and earlier in my career, I think it’ll just be better to be able to build it and grow it. And have more opportunities to do things with it.”
Ranked 24th in the points standings with a best of seventh at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Jones is mired in his worst Cup season but with recalibrated expectations.
“We’ve wanted to run better at times, at times we’ve done what we can,” he said. “It’s just week to week you try to improve little by little. Getting a top 10 at Indy was great and more attrition finish than anything. But still we take pride in running in the top 10. I feel we’ve been on par with what was expected. I don’t know that we’ve exceeded expectations. At times we have but not consistently.”
No matter to a hometown crowd that celebrated him at every opportunity last week. After the book reading, Jones was greeted by a superfan who wanted the driver’s autograph on three quarter-panels from his winning cars in The Clash and the Southern 500 and the Camry he drove in his Cup debut at Kansas Speedway.
That immediately was followed by a prerace Erik Jones Foundation tailgate that drew more than 60 family members and friends.
“It just always feels special to come here,” he said. “It definitely cool to come back home and feel the support from not only friends and family, but also the fans in general, that come out here. They definitely love their fellow Michiganders so it’s always cool.”