NASCAR Industry 'salutes' military members, families
May 26, 2014, Joe Menzer, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com
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Perhaps no major American sport supports the military more completely and in more varied ways than NASCAR, which offered ample evidence of that via several events leading up to the running of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Of course, this was only the kickoff of "NASCAR: An American Salute" -- a platform designed to rally race fans, teams, tracks and business partners to collectively honor and promote lasting relationships with active and retired service members and military families. The program will run from this Memorial Day weekend through the July 4 Independence Day weekend when NASCAR races are run at Daytona International Speedway.
The American Salute initiative started last week when Austin Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, visited Fort Bragg in North Carolina. There he helped kick off a unique program launched by NASCAR in partnership with Coca-Cola, Mars Chocolate North America and Mondelez designed to engage authorized shoppers in more than 180 military commissaries. From last Tuesday when Dillon visited to June 6, commissary shoppers can enter the 2014 Champions Week Sweepstakes for a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas for NASCAR Champion's Week next December by texting "NASCAR Salute” to 313131 or by visiting http://2014championsweeksweeps.com/.
Perhaps more importantly, Dillon visited with a steady stream of members of the Fort Bragg military community, sharing stories and signing autographs for two hours. He also helped give away four tickets to the Coca-Cola 600.
"Having them come over here, where we can meet them and shake their hands, it means a lot."
-- Francisco Martinez, an E-4 Specialist based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina
"Man, I love it anytime we get the chance to go anywhere and do anything with the military," Dillon said. "One of the favorite things I get to do each year is when I get to go to Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington D.C. To come not far from my hometown in my home state to Fort Bragg and see this whole operation is really cool.
"I actually came here on a field trip back in eighth grade and got to see how they pack parachutes and all that stuff. It was really cool to meet some of the troops back then -- but to come back now in this new stage of my life and give back what little I can, to be able to meet some of the great troops who allow me to have the freedom to race cars for a living, it's really special to me."
While it obviously meant a great deal to Dillon, it seemed to mean even more to the military personnel who stopped by to visit with him.
"It's great for the morale of all the soldiers," U.S. Army Capt. Ed Flecha said. "Regardless of a soldier's background or ethnicity, this basically is one of the favorite sports for all of us to follow. This young driver here is one of the future stars in NASCAR. Everybody on base here basically follows NASCAR. Whenever we have a driver like this come here, it means a lot to all of us.
"It's so great, too, when we see them in hospitals, working with (the) Wounded Warriors (Project), or wherever they interact with our personnel. Their support means so much."
Francisco Martinez, an E-4 Specialist based at Fort Bragg, said that NASCAR and the military are a perfect fit for each other. Martinez should know. He said he used to race cars back in his native Puerto Rico and added that one of his uncles used to work as a mechanic on Formula One race cars.
"They provide motivation for all of us," Martinez said of NASCAR drivers such as Dillon when they visit with troops. "They promote us and put a lot of effort into letting us know they appreciate us. We can appreciate what they do, too. They take risks in what they do. We sometimes have to take risks in what we do. Having them come over here, where we can meet them and shake their hands, it means a lot."
Likewise, it means a whole lot to service members when they are given an assist in making the transition from their military careers to the civilian job market.
That's where Bank of America, the largest employer of military service men and women in the nation, figures in with the American Salute campaign. In addition to launching its "Express Your Thanks" initiative where fans can use the hashtag #troopthanks alongside a message or video of appreciation to help generate donations up to $1 million for Welcome Back Veterans and the Wounded Warrior Project, Bank of America also teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to host a military job fair in Charlotte, North Carolina, last Thursday.
Among those in attendance was Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk, adjutant general of North Carolina.
"A fraction of one percent -- less than one percent -- of our population wears the uniform of our nation in whatever branch of service they serve," Lusk said. "It kind of harkens back and reminds us of this obligation that we have to one another."
Eric Eversole, the executive director of Hiring Our Heroes and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, said the U.S. Chamber has partnered with businesses to hold such job fairs in 200 cities across the country since 2011. He stressed that it is a win-win for businesses and service members looking to transition successfully into civilian life after serving their country.
"We've had over 180,000 service members go through our hiring fairs over the last three years," Eversole said. "Our hiring rate is well over 15 percent. So over 27,000 have received jobs as a direct result of coming to these fairs.
"And a lot of what is really important about our work is that we've really helped change the mindset of why you hire a veteran. You can talk about a lot of reasons about why it's the right thing to do, but it's simply a really good business decision. These veterans have really good skill sets. They know about leadership, they have good training, they know how to make decisions in tough environments. And businesses need that. They need people who can lead and not just follow."
One great example of making the successful transition from the military also was in attendance at last Thursday's job fair: Bank of America Senior Vice President and Senior Relationship Manager Will Manning. He also happens to be a former Combat Engineer officer in the U.S. Army's famed 82nd Airborne Division, where Manning also served as an Airborne Ranger and Master Parachutist.
When he first left the Army, Manning said there were no such programs available to offer a helping hand for soldiers to transition into civilian life. He wished at the time that there had been, and he said that's why he's so passionate about remaining involved in it now.
"For me, my passion is I want to give back personally to those who are serving and living the lifestyle that I've known and I've lived and I've seen," said Manning, who was based at Fort Bragg during his enlistment in the Army. "Because when I see a service member trying to transition out of the military and having trouble finding the right job, it could have been me, if circumstances were different. It's great to now be able to work for a company like Bank of America that could see the value in the skills that I brought to the table and say, 'You know what? We want more.' "
Later the same day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Goodyear gave more momentum to the American Salute initiative by announcing its fifth annual "Goodyear Gives Back" charitable program, launched with the running of "Support Our Troops" messaging on all race tires used during the Memorial Day weekend of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In partnership with the NASCAR Foundation, Goodyear also will host an on-line charity auction in which fans can bid on NASCAR memorabilia, VIP race experiences and rides on the Goodyear Blimp. Goodyear is matching funds raised through the auction, up to $50,000, to help military service members and their families.
Among those in attendance for the Goodyear announcement were NASCAR President Mike Helton and Richard Childress, owner of Richard Childress Racing.
"I know Mike is going to be a big bidder in the auction. He always is,” Childress joked of Helton.
Helton added: "I think this ties in very nicely with our whole culture in NASCAR since 1948. There are multiple generations of NASCAR industry members and NASCAR fans who all are very adamant about our appreciation of our armed forces and the families of those service members of the armed forces. There is no better moment to be reminded of the responsibilities we have to remember our soldiers and their families than Memorial Day weekend, and do all that we can to recognize them and help them."