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Indiana massager travels pro circuit

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 9:03 a.m.

INDIANA--Every weekend, for 10 months out of the year, Dawn Leone is on the road, traveling in her van to every NASCAR track in the nation. But she's not a fixated fan of the sport--she is the circuit's unofficial massage therapist, following the teams around the United States with her massage chair and table in tow.

Leone, who owns a massage business in Indiana, said her involvement with NASCAR gives her work week an extra kick, as does her work with the charity she founded, Massage for Good Health, that provides free massages for those who couldn't afford it.

Leone didn't always have her heart set on a career where her hands were her commission. But the medical background obtained in college opened up doors for her later in the massage therapy business.

Leone attended Duquesne University and obtained a pharmacy degree, but found herself in a tricky position--she had lost a drive to be a druggist. "I was bored to tears," she admitted. "I was too much of a people person" to be stuck behind a pharmacy counter. But she didn't want to waste her schooling, so she returned to Duquesne to gain a degree in business with the thought of going into pharmaceutical sales.

But that career didn't pan out, either, and her personality led her to a position in advertising sales. Around 1990, she landed a job hawking ads for an automobile magazine, Motor Mart, and soon developed a business tie with the Chip Ganassi family, Pittsburgh-based owners of Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the Indy racing circuit. "Having met them, I kind of got interested in NASCAR," said Leone.

What had sealed her interest in racing, though, was when she met Dale Earnhardt Sr. at a car cruise sponsored by another advertiser, the Crivellis, a Pittsburgh-area car dealer. She had developed connections with the Crivellis, who also own Jim Borburka's championship team for the National Hot Rod Association. Earnhardt made an appearance at one of their car cruises.

"It's very easy to catch the NASCAR bug," Leone noted. Not that she wasn't exposed to the bug when she was younger. Her family would often attend races at the Marion Center Speedway. "I liked Indy racing, but I didn't know much about NASCAR," she said.

Although advertising fit her character, Leone soon grew tired of working 14-hour days. "I was getting so burned out," she remarked, even though she had been promoted to head of advertising for the magazine.

"A couple of my friends who owned a massage therapy practice saw that I was burned out, and they asked me to help them out with their practice, answering phones and such," recalled Leone. "They needed help with their office and they knew I had business experience."

Leone worked in that Pittsburgh practice for a year, and through watching her friends work and getting to know the business, she grew attracted to a career in massage therapy. "They taught me techniques, and I just loved it," she said. "I loved the work, I loved that every person is different--some people think it would be repetitive, just giving back massages, but everyone is different. It's almost like being a psychologist as much as being a massage therapist."

Leone discovered two local schools that taught massage therapy, both in Pittsburgh. She applied at both, but because of her schooling, she was told by both institutions "that I could pick and choose the techniques I wanted to learn," she said. "So I went to both--whoever was the best in each technique. And I made sure when I took my courses that they were all accredited," in case Pennsylvania ever regulates massage therapy, so her credits would be recognized.

Leone still takes courses, learning new techniques and keeping up with the trends in massage. This is also helps keep her certified with the National Certification Board, which she said she uses as a rule of thumb.

In 1995, Leone opened a massage practice in Pittsburgh and commuted every day from Indiana. Two years later, while working out at the former J.T.'s Fitness on Philadelphia Street, she heard from her trainer that a storefront was opening up right below the gym. He proposed she open up a small practice there.

"He said it was a marriage made in heaven," Leone said, "because of J.T.'s clients," who might need a massage after a stressful workout. "So I thought, small town, I could work one or two days a week here and the rest in Pittsburgh. But that went right out the window."

Leone said she never realized that Indiana, as a college town, had so many professors, students, and staff members with an interest in massage therapy. "These are professors and students who are...trying to get away from popping pills," she noted. "They wanted a more natural way of approaching their health, whereas the people in Pittsburgh came to me for pampering."

Business was doing so well in Indiana that Leone closed her Pittsburgh office in 1997. In 1998, she moved the practice to the 700 block, but three years ago moved back to central Philadelphia Street. "At that time," she noted, "there were only five massage therapists in Indiana County. Now there are over 40."

Leone built on her clientele, which mostly consisted of IUP students and J.T.'s clients. "Those were my bread and butter," she stated. She continued trying to promote massage as a natural form of healthcare. "Within nine months, it just rocketed," she said.

Leone continued attending NASCAR races, and because "I already had my foot in the door, I would be in the pit or behind the scenes with the drivers, and I would hear the drivers say that their necks were aching, they would have back spasms, their hands would ache, their legs would ache.

"So I started handing out cards, visiting teams at their headquarters, writing letters, faxes, emails," even offering free massages. "It just was a progressive thing, getting to know the teams and what their needs were." She noted that many racing teams, as NASCAR's popularity exploded, were wary of anyone wanting to offer them services, not only because of privacy issues, but because of security.

"It's a big trust issue with them," she said. At that time, drivers were dealing with chiropractors, physical therapists, and massage therapists who would sign a contract with the team, come in, perform a few duties until they got their fill of souvenirs and autographs, then leave. "They would leave them high and dry," said Leone.

But Leone was a little more persistent, and definitely more visible. She was there for almost every race, and even though she was often behind the scenes, conversing with drivers and crew members, she never pursued them for an autograph or keepsake. "So over the course of seven years, they got to know me," she said.

But as security issues grew tighter, especially after Sept. 11, Leone was finding it harder and harder to get into the pit. Usually, to get behind the scenes, a team must vouch for you.

Around that time, Leone was also writing a health column for Smalltown Magazine in Indiana. They were looking for someone to cover NASCAR for them, and Leone seemed the natural choice, since she already attended as many races as she could. She was given a media pass, giving her access to areas where she again had contact with drivers, crew, and officials.

"They got word of me being a massage therapist, and I soon had a few track owners as clients," she recalled. "So I would set up my massage chair."

For drivers, Leone would set up in the track's garage area or next to the Winston Cup truck, which had its advantages. Fox Sports Net, each Sunday morning, airs a live show called "NASCAR This Morning," and they usually set up near the Winston Cup truck, which just happened to get her into their shots.

That exposure gained Leone many high-profile clients. Just a few weeks ago, as Fox was filming her in the background of a shot, the head of licensing for BAM Racing saw her on television. She began inquiring about Leone's whereabouts, not knowing that she was right there in the same track.

She found out where the show was filming, searched out Leone, and struck a deal with her: she would get Leone the credentials needed to get into the races and gain access to working areas of the tracks if Leone would agree to work on her team.

Now in her third season with NASCAR, she said, she has credentials to many of the tracks, and has developed working relationships with the Tide racing team, the Nextel series, and now, BAM Racing.

Tina Yacono, who works as a scorer for the car driven by Dave Blaney, met Leone about a year ago. "That's when she started working with all of us intensely," Yacono said. "She went through an awful lot to try to be a part of us out here. And I'm so glad she's here!"

Yacono, who lives in Huntersville, N.C., has taken advantage of Leone's massage therapy services on several occasions. "She has her massage chair set up for simple neck and back massages, which is where most of us carry our stress," she pointed out.

Leone also is very accommodating, she said, evening scheduling appointments to come to people's hotel rooms or motor coaches. "She's very easy to accommodate everybody's needs, and that's why people take advantage of her," Yacono said.

Leone worked hard for seven years to get ahead, to gain the teams' confidence and respect, but she said she still is sometimes set back by stereotypes of the old-fashioned "massage parlors" that were often fronts for prostitution.

As a matter of fact, in some parts of Virginia, it is still illegal for a female therapist to work on a male client. "Ninety percent of my clients are men," she pointed out. "I've actually had the police meet me at the gate as I pull in, needing to see my insurance, my special permits to work on men," which is usually the letter from the state regulatory board. "It made it really difficult for me."

Being a small-town Indiana native who on a weekly basis rubs elbows--and the backs and necks--of high-profile drivers is a feat in itself, but perhaps the most amazing aspect of Leone's work with NASCAR is that she does everything for free.

Because 20 states have regulations regarding massage therapy, she would need to become licensed in each state to charge for massage therapy while there, even if just for one weekend a year. "That would cost me a fortune," she stated. Leone still has to write to each state's legislature to receive permission from their legislative board to practice at no charge.

"Everyone at NASCAR knows that I can't charge because I come from a non-regulated state," she said.

She said, according to regulated states' legislature, that she not only cannot charge for the work that she does, but she can't work with the public or advertise in any way. She can work only with NASCAR teams and their affiliates.

The International Speedway Corp. even wanted $30,000 for Leone to rent a kiosk for one weekend if she wanted to charge for massages, "considering we make $100 in donations a week," she said.

Those donations, after Leone's traveling expenses are paid, go to Massage for Good Health, a charity Leone founded that provides free massage therapy for those who can't afford it, or whose insurance won't cover massage.

"I've always done free massage therapy for the public, but now this helps me to be able to pay for expenses," she said. "If someone doesn't have insurance, or their insurance won't pay, those who have valid medical problems" may fill out an application.

Besides monetary donations to Massage for Good Health, many teams also offer to pay for Leone's expenses for the week and her track credentials. The Tide team, she said, often gives her enough money to cover her gas, a pass to get into the media center, where food is free, plus ensures that she has a safe place to park her van, where she sleeps on the road. "They make it a habit of having me give chair or table massages to the entire team, and that includes the pit," she said.

But all the teams "are really good about making sure I have a place to park, something to eat, enough gas. There are several teams that always make sure I'm taken care of." When she's not here, we miss her terribly," said Yacono. "She's very good at what she does."

Yacono said that often, people go in search of Leone at the track. "People look for her every weekend," she said. "Last weekend, one of my girlfriends called up and asked, 'Where's Dawn• I need her!' Unfortunately, she wasn't there that week."

Leone often travels with her parents, Edwin and Donna Leone, also of Indiana. Leone said she's found that the NASCAR teams' generosity also is extended to her parents.

Leone travels with the NASCAR circuit from February through November, with only a handful of weekends off each season. Forty-three teams race each week, each with around 25 members--the driver, pit crew, and garage staff.

Depending on which series she is following that week, Leone will leave on Wednesday evening for the Busch series, and Thursday evening for the Nextel series, staying through Sunday night. She noted that she usually follows the Nextel Cup.

Her traveling also depends on where the track is that week. Her longest trip is to California, in which case she leaves on a Monday and spends several hundred dollars in gas. Most other trips cost between $50 and $90 in gas.

But expenses don't bother Leone in the least, and not only because they are often taken care of by the teams she works for.

"I'm not about the money," she said. "A lot of people don't understand working for charity. It's about helping people, and even though these guys are multi-millionaires, their bodies are so beaten and battered, and they don't always have time for medical treatment.

"They cover up injuries just so they can race the next week. They need those reflexes."

The complaints that Leone hears from drivers vary, from the minor to the serious.

"I had one guy tell me his leg goes numb halfway through the race," she recalled. Although the circuit does have a nurse working for them, that person is contractually bound to inform NASCAR officials of any injuries they diagnose or treat.

Leone, on the other hand, has a contract with each of her clients that forbids her to disclose any information as a privacy practice.

Those same privacy practices bar Leone from disclosing her clients' identities, but she did confirm that she has a hefty list of famous customers.

Other common complaints Leone tends to through massage therapy as far as the drivers are concerned are often concentrated on the neck and shoulder girdle because they tense up during a race. Their left arms are normally built up more so than their right because of the constant left-hand turns they make around a track, and are therefore tight and knotted, she said. Muscle spasms and cramps are also common.

As far as pit and garage crew go, their ailments usually deal with knee and back pain due to the heavy lifting and jerky movements their job requires.

"The team and crew, the physical exertion they put their bodies through, along with everyday stress" makes Leone a welcome commodity, said Yacono.

"And some people have a problem that needs to be taken care of right away, so they need someone like Dawn to take care of them while she's here."

On a typical weekend of Leone's while working the NASCAR circuit, she will arrive at the track in the afternoon as the Busch series has qualifying rounds--when they're done, they're ready for a massage. Leone normally works on the Busch series teams until midnight that night, and is awake bright and early at 7 a.m. to make her way to the garage area or to the drivers' motor homes, working until 4 p.m. Then it's on to the Nextel Cup, who are on the track that day.

She's with them typically until 1 a.m., wakes up Saturday morning at 5 a.m. to tend to the Busch series again until around 4 p.m., then back to Nextel until 1 a.m.

Sunday is race day, and Leone sets up early at her spot near the Winston Cup truck for the Sunday morning Fox broadcast.

Leone said on race weekends, she normally gives a few dozen chair massages a day (which take anywhere from five to 15 minutes) and at least three or four full massages.

She sometimes takes appointments from teams, but usually has a line for those wanting a chair massage when she's set up in the drivers' motor home area.

And it's not always just NASCAR drivers and their crews and families that are wandering around the private motor home units--Leone has seen the occasional movie, music, or television celebrity as she's working.

Pamela Lee Anderson and then-boyfriend Kid Rock were often sighted, as are the members of the country group Alabama. She has spotted Whoopi Goldberg, comedian David Spade, and even President George W. Bush from her work site.

"It's hard not to get star-struck," she said, especially when one of those celebrities comes and stands in line for one of her chair massages, which has happened on several occasions.

"You see all of these celebrities, but you cannot get star-struck" because that ruins her credibility, she said. "You have to be nonchalant, stay objective.

"They can ban you from a track."

In a contract she signs each weekend with a track, she is forbidden to seek autographs, photographs, or souvenirs of any kind.

"They're very friendly," Leone said of her clients. "They're a happy group because they're like one big family, and everybody has always been good to me," she said, but everyone knows their place, too.

Being gone away from her Indiana practice at least four days a week "sometimes hurts business," she acknowledged, "especially since I'm short-handed right now," with one massage therapist on maternity leave and another on vacation.

Yacono pointed out what she sees as another remarkable aspect of what Leone does for NASCAR. "The fact that she has loosened the reins of her own business so she can come out here and improve our quality of life is truly amazing," she said.

And even though losing time with her business might mean having to tighten up on other expenses, she said her main goal right now is the charity. "I want to make enough money to fund the charity, and working with NASCAR is giving me great exposure, maybe even enough to gain a sponsor."

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