How Lemons of Love uses motorsports to provide a lemon-yellow ray of hope

By J.A. Ackley
Jul 14, 2022 | Mazda, Miata, Mazda Miata, Lemons of Love | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Dave Green

More than likely, you or someone you love has felt the terrible effects of cancer. While the disease itself is horrible, the treatment for it can be far more dreadful. However, amid the bleakness of it all, Lemons of Love uses motorsports to provide a lemon-yellow ray of hope.

The group’s founder, Jill Swanson, understands the ravages of cancer firsthand. Her experience led her to create the nonprofit organization known for sharing care packages and counsel to those facing cancer as well its annual Mazda MX-5 Cup car giveaway.

The cause is backed by several big names in the industry, including WeatherTech, Gridlife, Flis Performance and, yes, the 24 Hours of Lemons. 

A Diagnosis From Seemingly Nowhere

Swanson has owned FAST Cooling, manufacturer of driver cooling systems, since 2005 and worked there 12 years before that. In 2014, she went to the Rolex 24 At Daytona. 

Swanson had been battling a cough, which she attributed to possibly an allergic reaction to a new cat. The following week, she visited a general practitioner to address that issue. The GP ordered tests, including a blood panel, to rule out any serious issues.

“Two hours later after getting bloodwork, they called me,” Swanson says. “They said, ‘You need to get to the hospital right now. You have no blood in your body.’ I was confused. They asked, ‘How do you feel today?’ I said, ‘I feel the same as I did last week.’”

Swanson underwent more tests. The good news: Doctors found no heart issues or signs of an aneurysm. The bad news: stage 3 colon cancer.

“I’ve never had a stomachache,” says Swanson. “I didn’t have any GI symptoms.”

By the end of that week, they operated on Swanson, removing half of her intestines. Just after the surgery, she says, she felt good, with plenty of energy. Swanson went on a pre-scheduled trip to Walt Disney World with her then-7-year-old stepson. However, she had yet to experience the hardest part of her cancer journey.

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

After the trip to see Mickey Mouse and friends, Swanson returned home to Illinois. There, she underwent her first round of chemotherapy.

“My first chemo appointment was probably 9 hours,” Swanson says. “I remember looking at everybody else in the waiting room, thinking to myself, ‘Wow, everybody’s got something here. What can I do for them?’

“In between chemo appointments, I put together packages for people. It was my way of connecting with everyone in the waiting room and sharing some love. Selfishly, it was a mental project for me. I kept calling it my lemonade project–you know, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

When Jill Swanson found out she had cancer, she used her motorsports connections to help others. Photography Credit: Courtesy Lemons of Love

Her care packages contained items to make undergoing chemo more palatable–and quite literally, too. Lotion and lip balm to help with dried-out skin and lips. Spring water to hydrate. Ginger tea for upset stomach. Lemon drops to help bring back the sense of taste, which is either lost or altered. To top off everything in the tote bag, she added superhero socks.

“I wrote everybody a card that said, ‘Hey, I’m going through this alongside you. I wanted to share this gift because I know what your body’s doing. I think you’re a superhero for coming here every time you need to show up,’” Swanson says.

Swanson vividly remembers the first patient to receive her care package.

“I handed her a package and she said, ‘No, I’m not buying anything,’” says Swanson. “I said, ‘No, this is a gift. I’m here to get chemo. You’re here to get chemo. This is a gift.’ She opens the bag, takes everything out and puts it all back in. She looked at me and said, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She gave me a hug. She then said, ‘Can I give you another hug?’ I think we both cried.”

The Racing Connection

While Swanson went through chemo, so did her good friend Dave Wheeler of Spec Miata prep shop Advanced Autosports in Beloit, Wisconsin. He became the first to receive a care package outside of her hospital. (Sadly, Wheeler succumbed to the second occurrence of cancer in 2018.)

When she visited Road America in August 2014, she experienced the same kind of love she doled out at the cancer center.

“I had a golf cart waiting for me from Riley Motorsports at the gate because I could barely walk,” Swanson says. “Fall-Line Motorsports had a chef that made sure I got fed. I had people handing me money who wanted to help pay my bills. I took that money and called my accountant. I said to my accountant, ‘How do we keep this lemonade project going?’ That’s how Lemons of Love started.”

The racing world continued to rally around a cause they all felt. “A group of people in motorsports was impacted by cancer around the same time I was, with different types of cancers,” says Swanson. “Within the first couple of years, we lost a lot of people. 

“When I turned my lemonade project into Lemons of Love, it was my drivers and teams, it was Bill Riley and Andy Lally, people who loved me and my business, who were the first donors to the nonprofit. Another client of mine, a vintage driver, Patrick Womack, he was a GM of Laurel BMW in Westmont, Illinois, and now is president of WeatherTech. He opened his doors and did a fundraiser for us to launch us into what we are now.”

“I have known Jill Swanson for close to 20 years,” says Womack. “We met through Porsche club racing and, as a local business owner, we connected both on personal and professional levels. Jill confided in me early on in her cancer scare, and I tried to help in any way I can by supporting the newly formed Lemons of Love charity she created. She attacked cancer as she has everything else in her life–head on, with an incredibly positive can-do attitude. She unselfishly put others first in trying to provide support instead of letting her own situation consume her.”

One significant backer of the nonprofit is known for its lighthearted take on motorsports: “The 24 Hours of Lemons, over the past seven seasons, has raised over $200,000,” Swanson says. “They do this program where if a participant gets in trouble with a judge, they can do a task or donate to the charity and get a sticker that says, ‘I donated to the charity instead of whatever the task was.’”

The Giveaway Connection

This year marks Lemons of Love’s sixth annual giveaway for a Mazda MX-5 Cup car with a signature lemon-yellow roll cage. The idea behind it started with Alana Long. Her husband, Glenn Long, operated Long Road Racing, which helped develop the current Mazda MX-5 Cup racer. Sadly, Alana died of brain cancer in 2019 and Glenn shut down the company soon thereafter.

Now, Flis Performance prepares the cars and continues the tradition started by its predecessor. As with Long Road Racing, Flis’ namesake, Todd Flis, also knows the ravages of cancer. His wife, Stephanie, was diagnosed with breast cancer after he started building cars for the giveaway. Thankfully, she’s now in remission.

Each year, Lemons of Love gives away a turnkey MX-5 Cup car. This year’s will be awarded at Road America in August. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

“It’s a great thing to do,” Flis says. “My wife had breast cancer, so it’s something close to my heart. I’ve been involved in distributing care packages at the hospital. It helps the patients when they’re going through hard times.”

The giveaway raises funds for Lemons of Love so they can help more people with cancer.

“Our racing world has been so impacted by cancer. It’s heartbreaking,” says Swanson. “The giveaway enables us to get these care packages everywhere. We’ve shared the packages in all 50 states and 17 other countries.”

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David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
7/12/22 2:38 p.m.

It's always nice to see the racing community give back. 

te72 Reader
7/15/22 8:38 p.m.

Great organization. I've donated for three or four years now. No Miata prize yet, but that's not really the point. Having lost my grandma to cancer, and having seen it work its tragedy into the lives of so many others over the years, it's nice to be able to support a group dedicating their time to helping those folks suffer even just a bit less.

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