RELATED: Show your support with NASCAR: An American Salute
CONCORD, N.C. -- On display at Goodyear headquarters in Akron, Ohio, is one of two tires that bear the autographs of Sprint Cup Series drivers, the signatures of soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the message of "Support Our Troops" scripted in camouflage on the sidewall. There are few items that better signify the bonds between NASCAR and the military.
"They were choppered all over the war zone, and hauled all over in trucks, and all the soldiers who could get their hands on them signed them and wrote whatever they wanted all over them on behalf of all the troops," said Martin Boire, chairman of Support Our Troops, the organization that houses the other tire. "? Just something like that, to show up from home about a sport they're so thrilled about, it made them feel like they were home again."
No wonder Goodyear has kept the program going for four years, with that message of support for military members once again appearing on tires this Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It's part of a larger military appreciation effort surrounding the Coca-Cola 600, one that includes patriotic paint schemes on many race cars, a military-themed pre-race show, several thousand active-duty troops in the grandstands, and the kickoff of NASCAR: An American Salute, a celebration of military service that runs through Independence Day weekend at Daytona.
"NASCAR's respect for the military is in our DNA, and has been. It was founded not too long after World War II was over with, so all the energy that came back from that kind of went into the DNA of NASCAR. And our leadership since our beginning has always paid a great deal of tribute and reminded the generations to come of the sacrifices that the military make," said NASCAR President Mike Helton.
"I think it just blends together. Certainly all sports are very eager to be able to thank troops and be respectful and remind their fans of the importance of the military's responsibilities and duties because it gives us a freedom in all sports and even the business community gives us our freedom to do what we do. NASCAR likes to think that it's maybe a bit more tied in, but the fact is that the military is important to everybody, and we just want to make sure that the military understands that they're extremely important to NASCAR."
From a Goodyear perspective, the message on the tires is part of a larger program that has raised over $700,000 for the Support Our Troops organization, which maintains morale through care packages and other initiatives. Goodyear is matching up to $50,000 raised through a charity auction, but it's the message on the tires -- in place of the familiar Eagle brand name -- that generates the most attention.
"The reaction that we get is amazing," said Stu Grant, Goodyear's general manager of global race tires. "I remember when we first started this program, I would have people come up to me in the garage area, and around the race track, or even at the hotel that I didn't know at all ? and would (say), 'Hey, I've got a relative in the military, I just want to thank you for what you're doing,' and so on and so forth. That happened more often than you think. It touched a lot of people, and really I guess reinforced the positive thing that we were doing with this whole program."
The military appreciation theme will once again be evident in Sunday's pre-race show, which will feature a flyover of 10 vintage aircraft -- including two P-51 Mustangs owned by Jack Roush -- and the participation of 600 soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C. Race teams are following suit, with a number of cars outfitted in paint schemes featuring stars and stripes.
"It means a lot to me to race on Memorial Day weekend, and the patriotism that's shown in this sport," said reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. "Obviously, there are a lot of cars with special paint schemes and a lot of different things that the track does as well to really embrace what it means to race on Memorial Day weekend, and what the weekend means in general. That's something I hold in the highest regard, and just proud to be a participant."
NASCAR regularly welcomes and celebrates the military at its events, but Memorial Day at Charlotte is when that relationship traditionally reaches its peak. Thousands of active military members will be bussed in from bases throughout the Carolinas for Sunday's event.
"From our side, I think it's pretty easy and pretty obvious," said Matt Kenseth, who has won three times this season. "Without the military and all the people and all the sacrifices they make and all the things they do, then we wouldn't have the freedom to be able to go out here and race each and every weekend in front of them. I think it's a good weekend to try to show your appreciation for the military and all the people and the sacrifices they make. You should do it every day, but certainly this weekend is always good for that."
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