NASCAR, Daytona Honor Troops at the Great American Race

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

When fans look back on the weekend of the 59th annual Daytona 500, most will remember the sights of dozens of wrecked race cars, the debut of Monster Energy as a presenting sponsor and a host of new competition rules.

However, for a few of our nation’s heroes, Speedweeks will be remembered as the opportunity of a lifetime.

With weekly programs dedicated to honoring soldiers both past and present and a constant effort to foster opportunities for growth and partnership, NASCAR has established itself as one of the biggest supporters of our nation’s troops in the sporting world.

The organization proved just that throughout Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway (DIS), welcoming a wealth of the country’s heroes as part of multiple outreach programs designated to bolster recruiting, honor active personnel and remember the fallen.

A Unique Opportunity

One such program observed over the weekend was Troops to the Track.

NASCAR invited a group of Airmen from the 336th Recruiting Squadron & the 23rd Wing Public Affairs Unit at the nearby Moody Air Force Base in nearby Georgia to participate in the weekend’s festivities and recruit new members.

”We cover a whole recruiting area with three states – Florida, Georgia, all the way up to Carolina,” Staff Sgt. Cory Challenger told Kickin’ the Tires. “Our marketing team puts this all together, works with NASCAR and race officials to get the Air Force name out there. We work hand-to-hand to develop relationships in the community.”

Challenger was one of a select group of Airmen whose AOR – area of responsibility – included Daytona Beach, Florida, designating a trip to the 2.5-mile DIS oval to volunteer, recruit and participate in a weekend of racing.

Another service member in the AOR of Daytona – Sgt. Dan Cunningham, a recruiter in Daytona Beach, – attended his his third Daytona 500 over the weekend, though it was his first working with the program.

“I was asked by my leadership to come out and check it out,” Cunningham said. “This is my third Daytona 500, but it’s the first time I’ve been involved in anything like this, so it’s been really incredible.”

The weekend may seem like one of fun or play for the service members, but in truth it’s a volunteered weekend full of work. For Cunningham, Speedweeks included trips both to the track and the surrounding community.

“I escort the Thunderbirds out to some local events at high schools and other locations as they need them,” Cunningham said. “Then I come out here to the Air Force booth and get Air Force knowledge out there to the public as best as I can.”

Given the tasks, volunteering on Daytona weekend can prove tiring. However, the unique opportunity to appeal to such a large demographic proves more than worth the time for those involved.

“I think it’s a great way to get the Air Force’s brand image out there,” Cunningham explained. “There’s millions of people that get to see this event, on TV and in person, so it’s a great way to get our image out there in front of that audience we might not reach otherwise.”

“It’s great, because we can take pictures and relay our stories to people,” Challenger noted. “We can tell them that this is an opportunity that the Air Force has afforded to us.

“People like concrete things that we can relate to. So if we can say, ‘Hey look, these are things that I got to do as part of the Air Force. Check out these pictures,’ it’s a big selling point. The more information that our applicants coming in can actually see, touch and hear, the more we can drive home the point outside of sitting in our office.”

Honoring Our Fallen Soldiers

While the United States Air Force was taking advantage of an opportunity to recruit new members on a nationwide stage, another family cherished a chance to honor their son.

In an opportunity made possible by Honor and Remember, Inc., NASCAR and DIS invited Lee and Betty Sue Vincent to the track to honor their son, Pfc. Donald “Wayne” Vincent, a member of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Camp Lejeune, N.C., that was killed July 25, 2009, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“Wayne moved all the way all over the United States with us,” Lee, a former member of the United States Navy, told Kickin’ the Tires. “He was born in Louisiana, then went from there to my final tour in Hawaii, which he absolutely loved. A great place for a young man.

“I tried to talk him into going into the Navy, but he wanted to be in the Marine Corps. I told him, ‘You know, if that’s your dream then you need to follow through and go for it.’”

Nearly eight years after losing Wayne, Lee and Betty Sue jumped at the opportunity to honor their son on a global stage – though both of them admittedly don’t carry much experience with NASCAR or DIS.

“I’m a semi-NASCAR fan,” Lee said. “I grew up in rural Mississippi and went to rural dirt tracks to watch that, so it’s unique for us to be able to come here. I’ve got a lot of good friends that are NASCAR fans.”

Betty Sue had been to the track before, but hadn’t seen the facility since her teenage years.

“That was a few years ago… The track’s changed just a tad,” she joked.

“Daytona’s awesome. I’m fascinated by it,” Lee said. “There’s a lot to see and we haven’t seen nearly all of it yet. The advice that we’ve received is to just observe it. Don’t try to get too many though processes going for it, just enjoy it while you’re here.”

All Because of NASCAR

While the two programs highlighted differed greatly in their goals and approaches, they each contain one glaring similarity – the support of NASCAR.

Neither group takes that support for granted.

“Having the opportunity to get out and work alongside a major name like NASCAR is a wonderful experience,” Challenger said. “It’s not something that – outside of our small recruiting world –  most airmen get to experience.”

Given proof that their son’s sacrifice hasn’t gone unnoticed, the Vincent family praised NASCAR for remembering those that allow them their freedom.

“We get a lot of private people talking to us about our loss, but to have a national organization like this remember our fallen… It’s a great tribute to Gold Star families,” Lee said. “Nobody wants to be a Gold Star family, but in my opinion, this is an appropriate recognition for our fallen heroes.”

And as for Cunningham, the opportunity to combine his loves of racing and the Air Force proved an unforgettable combination.

“It’s a dream come true to me,” Cunningham said. “Honestly, I’ve loved cars my whole life, so any time I get to be a part of something with drag racing or NASCAR, I cherish it.”

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