Memorial Day race caps off monthlong military-NASCAR partnership

Memorial Day race caps off monthlong military-NASCAR partnership
The Official U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard poses for a photo with NASCAR drivers prior to last year's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte, N.C., May 30, 2021. Photo credit  Lance Cpl. Tanner Lambert

This Memorial Day weekend's Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina features 37 race cars, 600 miles of racing, more than 150,000 fans and a whole lot of service members and equipment representing those who defend the nation.

The three-day event, which kicks off Friday, involves a joint color guard, and personalized introductions of race drivers by service members. Each of the services will also have an array of equipment on-site to allow fans to interact with military equipment and service members.

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The Army, for instance, is scheduled to conduct Howitzer and UH-60 Black Hawk demonstrations courtesy of soldiers from Fort Bragg, the 82nd Airborne Chorus will perform "God Bless America," among other selections, and a soldier will sing the National Anthem before the start of the race.

The Air Force will conduct a flyover of C-17 aircraft and swear in new Airmen who are currently in the delayed entry program.

A Marine from the "The Commandant's Own" U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps will play "Taps," and Marines with the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon will conduct multiple precision drill performances for attendees.

"The show includes a lot of drill movements, throwing of rifles and spinning of rifles," said Capt. Nick Maguire, commander of the Silent Drill Platoon. "But the platoon is basically the embodiment of our institutional Corps values of honor, courage and commitment. Really, professionalism and discipline are the two words that come to mind for me with watching these guys operate."

In some years the platoon has logged as many as 200 performances. However, in recent years, the number of performances has been diminished by COVID-19, Maguire said — but the team is now working its way to nearly a full schedule. Their performance at the Coca-Cola 600 race will be their first NASCAR-related event this year, and Maguire said the team at Charlotte Motor Speedway has made it easy for his platoon to showcase the best of the Marine Corps.

While the Silent Drill Platoon certainly entertains and dazzles spectators with their precision maneuvers, Maguire said entertainment is only part of the mission. Showcasing the best qualities of the Marine Corps to the next generation of Marines is really at the heart of what they do.

Memorial Day race caps off monthlong military-NASCAR partnership
Garrett Smithley (standing), driver for Rick Ware Racing’s NASCAR Cup Series, shows the inside of their show car to Maj. Patrick Walsh, (seated in car) 560th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot trainee, at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, May 4, 2022. Smithley, his racing crew and his show car toured JBSA over three days giving service members and their families an up-close look as part of the NASCAR Salutes program. Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Brian J. Valencia

"At the race, you get young high school kids who potentially are thinking about joining the service — they're looking at what branch to join, and they see our platoon," he said. "It's not just the crisp uniforms, the discipline or the professionalism — it's that you see an E-2, E-3, E-4 with enormous responsibility performing in front of tens of thousands of fans at a NASCAR race. I think that that's really a special thing."

"They've been just incredible hosts," Maguire said. "The planning has been incredibly detailed. And we're just excited to get back in the mix doing these NASCAR events and we hope that we can partner with NASCAR for years to come."

The Silent Drill Platoon is based in Washington, D.C., at the Marine Corps Barracks, Maguire said. Being based in the Nation's Capital, which is saturated with military personnel, veterans and bureaucracy, means the mostly young members of the platoon could lose sight of just how highly most Americans think of their service. That's not the case when they leave town to perform at events like the Coca-Cola 600, Maguire said.

"When you go on the road and you go to places where there's not necessarily a huge military footprint, the reception is always incredibly overwhelming," Maguire said. "Of course, the NASCAR fans are excellent. The word I would use is it's just humbling — the support and the care and the appreciation that we get from fans everywhere."

In North Carolina, Greg Walter serves as the executive vice president of and general manager for the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The U.S. military's participation in the Memorial Day Coca-Cola 600 race activities is something he's seen happen for years now — and something he said he's proud to be a part of.

"The Coca-Cola 600 weekend has become and has been this traditional salute to the military," he said.

The race draws spectators from all 50 states, he said, and this year from 12 different countries as well.

"What we want to do through the weekend is provide a platform for people to be able to engage, to hear the stories," he said.

Memorial Day race caps off monthlong military-NASCAR partnership
A UH-60 Blackhawk hovers above the Winner's Circle at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., during last year's Coca-Cola 600 race. Photo credit U.S. Army/Capt. Robyn Haake

At the Memorial Day NASCAR event at Charlotte, he said, stories include those of service members as told to fans and veterans who talk with service members. He said he knows of one military unit — veterans of Desert Storm — who is making the race event a reunion for former members. Stories also happen without words, such as when military units like the Silent Drill Platoon convey more than 240 years of Marine Corps history through their performance.

"A sporting event is an emotional time," Walter said. "And when you tell stories during an emotional time, they stick. They leave memories. People hold on to those. So, what we do with this weekend is we get a chance through our relationship with the Department of Defense to tell some of these stories."

The Coca-Cola 600 race event will bring more than 150,000 fans to the racetrack, Walter said. He also said the NASCAR fan base has an unusually high number of military veterans who will both appreciate and connect with the military presence at the racetrack.

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"The fans that we have, the people who follow the sport — have a keen sense of patriotism and of the sacrifices of our men and women in the service," he said. "I've seen it out here in the fan zone, I've seen it during pre-race ... there's this admiration."

In the month leading up to the Coca-Cola 600 event, Walter said, other partnership events happened at military bases around the country — events that allowed drivers and race teams to interact with military members across the force.

"We take the stars, the drivers from our sport and juxtapose them in experiences with servicemen and women," he said.

Drivers, he said, were able to visit with service members at places like Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Fort Bragg, both in North Carolina; Parris Island in South Carolina; and Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. Another NASCAR driver also visited Arlington National Cemetery and laid a wreath there.

He also said that since COVID-19, NASCAR has been able to work with the Defense Department to do virtual visits as well.

"Through technology, we would have a driver interact with a tank team in Kuwait or ... an infantry team or brigade and talk about fitness and how teamwork plays into what a NASCAR team does and what a small unit would do in the field in combat," he said. "Those have been wonderful juxtapositions of the two worlds and how much they align, how much it requires — teamwork, communication, selflessness — for a NASCAR team to be successful, and certainly for those who are serving in the military."

A lot of work goes into orchestrating both the pre-race events and the race events. And in the planning among the Defense Department, NASCAR, the miliary services and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Walter said, the Defense Department has been an exceptional partner.

"They've been amazing," he said. "We know that this is something added to their plate. And we try to be very conscious of not burdening too much the units and the people that we interact with. But the professionalism that we encounter with them is unparalleled, as is their commitment to mission, and making this the best that we can."