When most toddlers are learning to walk, Adam Rawski was taking on the greatest challenge of his life.
The 18-month-old had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, an extremely rare form of childhood eye cancer with a 13 percent survival rate.
Rawski somehow beat those steep odds – “I kind of slipped through the cracks,” he says, ever optimistic. “I got through that OK.” – but only at a tremendous cost: the removal of his left eye and, of course, partial blindness.
By the time he reached second-grade, though, another obstacle confronted him: bullying. Some of the other boys at Winfield Elementary School picked on him simply because he did not have something they did.
And, for a second time, a potential crash turned into a victory.
“My dad heard that I was having a hard time at school socially,” Rawski says, “so he got me something so that I could have something that no one else had. He got me a race car, kind of like a go-kart. I started racing semi-professionally at 8 years old. I just got thrown into the deep end. My dad just put me in the car.”
Outside of class, the West Chicago native is in charge of marketing for NIU’s Formula SAE team, a role that includes serving as a liaison with manufacturers and distributors of parts as well as leading the recruitment of new members.
He’s also on the executive board of NIU’s American Marketing Association student chapter, working to get fellow Huskies involved in good causes such as Feed My Starving Children.
And he’s still racing, no longer in go-karts but in Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The winner of four National Auto Sports Association (NASA) championships also is teaching others as a professional driving instructor with Xtreme Xperience.
Fridays mean jumping on airplanes for destinations around the country to teach; recent clinics were held in Charlotte, Houston, Palm Beach, Phoenix and Seattle. He catches red-eye flights back to Chicago early each Monday, returning to DeKalb just in time for his 9 a.m. class.
Despite the crazy schedule, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I really like the experience of going fast,” Rawski says. “I road-race, so I make right and left turns. That adds a lot more complexity to it, such as when you’re going to shift the car, how you’re going to set up for the next corner. It’s so much more challenging. But driving a Ferrari around a race track at 150 mph is really a lot of fun, too.”
Going fast is not without its consequences, though.
Early races occasionally found him smashed into the wall, once on Mother’s Day when he tried to impress his nervous mom by maneuvering his go-kart through the pack en route to what he figured was the checkered flag.
“I got out of the car crying, and she said to me, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ My father convinced me otherwise,” he says, “and it’s afforded me some pretty amazing opportunities.”
Racing, he says, also offers great and universal lessons he loves to share.
“I always try to convey the message to people that, even if you have a disability or something that’s holding you back in your life, you shouldn’t allow that to take hold of your life,” he says. “I’m completely blind in one eye, but I still live a normal life. I go out onto the track. I teach people to race cars.”
His career path is a result of racing as well.
Five years ago, top management of NASA proposed to Rawski that he become the director of his own racing series, a challenge the 17-year-old accepted in creating and operating Spec Z.
“That’s how I got my feet wet in the marketing world,” he says. “I had to not only recruit other drivers to come out but to prepare marketing materials to promote the series. That was 2013, so I was pretty young.”
Originally a business administration major, he found himself in an entry-level marketing class with Professor Tim Aurand. “He really inspired me,” Rawski says. “I ultimately changed my major later that semester.”
He hopes now that he’s also changing lives – and opening the eyes of others.
“I’ve kind of had this mentality since I was in middle school, going into high school, that if I were in a situation where I wanted to do something, and somebody basically told me, ‘You can’t do that. You’re blind in one eye. You’re disabled,’ that it made me step back and say, ‘I can do that,’ ” he says. “I love to prove those people wrong.”