Posted at: 05/17/2013 11:39 PM
By: Dan Levy
MALTA - An 8-year old boy went for the ride of his life Friday night in Malta. Just two months after surviving a heart-breaking tragedy, Matthew Sleight wound up in the winner's circle, lifted to a heart-warming celebrity status at the Albany-Saratoga Speedway.
Matthew arrived in style, riding in a shiny, black, stretch limousine, but that was just the beginning of an unforgettable night for the bright-eyed second grader.
"It's definitely a change for us," said Chris Sleight, Matthew's father. "The last few months, it's been obviously a rough road, up and down, there's days when he smiles and has a good time."
Back on March 10th, Matthew was a passenger in a car hit head-on by a van on Route 67 in Amsterdam. His mother Tanya, who was driving, and his older brother Elijah were killed in the crash. His 2-year old sister Naomi is still recovering.
On that fateful night, Taylor Janis, a U.S. Marine, witnessed the crash and pulled Matthew out of the wreckage.
"I was there in the right place at the right time," Janis said, "I did what I could and anyone of my Marine brothers and sisters would have done the same thing."
Weeks after the crash, Matthew asked his dad if he could see Taylor again. It was arranged. The two became fast friends. Taylor found out Matthew loved the speedway. He knew someone who knew someone else, and that led to Friday night.
"It's really good seeing him," Taylor said, in full Marine dress uniform. "I know he looks up to me. He's a good kid. I'm just glad I'm here for him right now and he knows he's my little buddy know. Anything for the kid."
Anything for the kid meant everything for the kid at the speedway Friday night. He toured the pit area. He met the pit crews. He spoke with drivers. He was lavished with t-shirts, autographs, and checkered flags.
Matthew found himself buckled in behind the wheel of a race car. He even sped around the dirt oval inside the pace car, waving to the crowd.
"It's amazing," Chris Sleight said, "You can't really put words to it because it's just so much."
Even though it's possible Matthew may grow up some day and become a race car driver, Taylor Janis seems to be banking on something else.
"When he visited me at my house, he was kind of gung ho about the Marine Corps so maybe we got a future Marine on our hands," Janis suggested.
Taylor Janis wasn't supposed to be at the Raceway on Friday. He was scheduled to be with his Marine unit at Fort Drum. When the Marine brass found out everything had already been arranged for Matthew, and Matthew wanted Taylor with him, Taylor's commanding officer ordered him to be with Matthew.