BRISTOL, Tenn. — For all of the traditions in NASCAR, one of the more endearing for fans and competitors takes place tonight.
It’s when the children of drivers and team members sing the national anthem at Bristol Motor Speedway. They've performed the song for this race every since 1999 and among those who have sung in the children's choir are Chase Elliott, Harrison Burton, Jeb Burton, Todd Gilliland and John Hunter Nemechek.
Tonight marks the last time that Melanie Self will lead the children’s choir as women’s and children’s ministry coordinator for Motor Racing Outreach. Self, who will retire, has led the choir since 2002 and her message is always clear to the children before they perform.
“They are the stars and they know it,” Self told NBC Sports. “I make sure that they know that the whole world is watching.”
Nemechek’s memories are of the performances that took place before the children got in front of friends, family and fans.
“I always remembered that rehearsals went great,” Nemechek said. “No one was afraid of anything. And then we would get out there to go sing and everyone was kind of super quiet at first and then it got louder and then it got quiet again.”
Once rehearsals were done, the children would be bused into the track and driven to the start/finish line ahead of their performance.
“What I’ll probably hold in my heart is when we come in on the buses, the kids are so hyped because we have probably have given them every piece of sugar available to man, I’m that grandmother to them as well,” Self said. “The word is electric.
“Once they get on the bus and they know we’re going into the track, the moment that we pull onto the track, the fans are insane. I’m telling the kids, 'You wave to them. They’re your fans tonight. You are the star of the show. You are going to shine.'”
Gilliland remembers something else about that short ride.
“I think we were just on like the first part of the apron, but it always felt like you were going to flip over,” Gilliland told NBC Sports. “It gave me a feeling for the banking.”
Once at the start/finish line, the children were aligned in rows looking ahead at family and fathers about to race.
“You get so nervous, you wouldn’t sing,” Harrison Burton told NBC Sports. “It would get real quiet and the adults would say ‘louder, louder.’”
Burton smiles as he recalls the memories of taking part in that.
“It’s a crazy atmosphere and to be like seven and trot out there and sing into a microphone,” he said.
One of the special moments for Self is to turn around and see the “dads, for a moment, just be dad” and watching their children sing before climbing into their cars to race.
It is among the memorable moments for Brad Keselowski, whose two daughters have sung the anthem with the group.
“It’s a really special moment for our family,” Keselowski said. “And then you have to high-tail it because the cars are on the backstretch, like six minutes before the race starts. I find myself quite often asking NASCAR, ‘Hey, can you give us an extra minute or two so maybe we can not sprint to the car?’”