Student experiences life in the fast lane

Last Sunday, “Team Matthew” showed up to the Irwindale Speedway and took to the stands, ready to watch their favorite race-fan’s winning lap.

Tricked-out in a racing suit and helmet, Matthew Rubalcava, a 14-year-old El Roble student, veered around curves at speeds as high as 135 miles per hour and spun in rubber-burning donuts. It was one wild ride-along, with the track negotiated by NHRA racing champ Ryan Partridge.

Some 50 of Matthew’s biggest cheerleaders watched the action from the bleachers, including family members and friends like El Roble seventh grader Shelby Gonzales as well as a delegation of teachers and other educators from his school. Even Assistant Principal Clarissa McNally showed up to find out how Matthew liked life in the fast lane. 

Enthusiasm was the order of the day. A trio of girls wore “Team Matthew” T-shirts and the El Roble delegation unfurled banners cheering him on.

“He must be on Cloud 9 right now. I’d like to have a camera to see his expression,” El Roble para-educator Brianna Fitzgerald said.

After the race car skidded to a stop, Matthew’s 11-year-old cousin Eric Hererra was among the supporters who surrounded the vehicle, eager to find out how the ride felt. Eric reached out and touched the tires. “They are burning hot!” he exclaimed.

There was a round of applause as Matthew was lifted out of the racecar and returned to his wheelchair. And what does he think of being in a car with the pedal to the metal? “It feels cool,” he said.

Everybody who knows Matthew knows he eats, sleeps and dreams cars.

“I’ve loved NASCAR and drag-racing since I was little,” Matthew shared, adding that he enjoys watching the “Fast and Furious” movies and the reality show “Street Outlaws.”

Aware of his automotive obsession, para-educator Belinda Cassidy reached out to the Irwindale Event Center, telling them about a special kid with special needs who would love to get extreme. They responded by offering Matthew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity through their LA Racing Experience racing school.

Matthew’s parents, Juan and Veronica Rubalcava, heard about his upcoming experience a week before the red-letter day. For the most part, it was easy keeping the surprise, his 9-year-old brother Jason said.

Afterwards, Ms. Rubalcava was in tears.

“I never thought he would have his dream come true. Thank you for being here,” she told the audience.

“I can’t describe this kind of feeling. It was great. It was exciting,” his father added.

Life can be challenging for Matthew and his family. When he was 5, he was diagnosed with Duchene muscular dystrophy, a disorder that causes the muscles to degenerate. By age 10, he could no longer walk. It was a watershed moment, Ms. Rubalcava shared.

“My biggest fear was that once he sat in a wheelchair, he’d become a sad, depressed kid. But that hasn’t happened,” she said. “He’s blown me away. Despite his challenges, he’s a happy kid.”

Matthew’s grandfather Antonio Robles has always encouraged Matthew to follow his interests, taking him to many a drag race over the years. He seconds Ms. Rubalcava’s insistence that the teen has a gift for happiness.

“That’s my Matthew. We go to a party and the other kids are jumping in a bounce house. Matthew’s still having fun,” Mr. Robles said. “You can see him in his wheelchair, dancing.

Matthew attended Danbury School before matriculating to El Roble, where he is among the most beloved of students in the special education department. His moment in the sun couldn’t be more deserved, according to the staff.

“He’s perfect. He’s the most loveable, hardworking kid,” English teacher Sharon Sanner said. 

That wasn’t the end of the enthusiasm.

“He’s polite, he’s caring, he’s respectful,” Ms. Fitzgerald enthused. “He’s also hilarious. He has a great sense of humor. Every good adjective: that’s him.” 

Trevor Losh-Johnson, a para-educator who works with Matthew, is yet another member of his sizeable fan club.

“He is one of the most genteel people I’ve ever met, of any age,” he said. 

It was heartwarming to see how many members of El Roble’s special education staff showed up for Matthew’s big day. Ms. Cassidy says that pulling together is just what the crew does. “We all show up. If someone needs help, if someone does something special, we’re there for each other,” she said.

Nevertheless, the staff’s enthusiasm spoke volumes to Ms. McNally.

“They go above and beyond,” she said, surveying the enthusiastic crowd. “This is just more evidence. It shows the character of the team. I think this is an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience. I’m just glad I was here to be a part of it.”’

So was Matthew’s cousin Eric. When asked whether he would dare to climb into a race car, he had a ready answer: “I would. I honestly would.”

—Sarah Torribio


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