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May 1, 2024

Ryan Blaney’s Coca-Cola 600 defense takes on deeper meaning in Arlington National Cemetery visit

Defending Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney (left) and Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith (right) lay a wreath at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a Mission 600 visit on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.
Charlotte Motor Speedway photo

ARLINGTON, Va. – Ryan Blaney knew well in advance that a commemorative visit to Arlington National Cemetery had been on his daily planner. The notice gave him some time for anticipation, to gather his thoughts on what to expect in visiting one of the country’s most solemn places, where more than 400,000 of America’s service members and their loved ones have been placed at rest, scores of white marble headstones against rolling green grass.

Facing the thought of comprehending the magnitude and the meaning, the NASCAR Cup Series champion says he stopped trying to think of what to expect.

“You don’t realize how special it is, until you’re actually a part of it,” Blaney said from the raised concourse at the Military Women’s Memorial on the 639-acre grounds. “Honestly, until you’re here, you don’t understand the sheer mass of this place, and how respectful everyone is here, and why it’s here.”

Blaney and a delegation of Charlotte Motor Speedway dignitaries opened their recognition of the NASCAR Salutes initiative Wednesday — the first day of National Military Appreciation Month -with a visit to Arlington National and their participation in a wreath ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Blaney was a distinguished guest as the defending race winner of the Coca-Cola 600, which the Charlotte track hosts Sunday, May 26 (6 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on Memorial Day Weekend.

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NASCAR’s longest race will be the final act on what is traditionally one of the motorsports calendar’s grandest days, with fanfare and the sounds of roaring from both crowds and engines. Wednesday was the opposite, a day of meditative calm and reflection.

The time-worn traditions of paying respects at Arlington National Cemetery have been shared by visitors spanning from American presidents and international heads of state, to school groups and tourists. Wednesday morning, just after the sounding of 11 bells, Blaney and Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith offered their own tribute by placing a wreath by the 103-year-old sarcophagus, shortly after the changing of the guard. The banner that stretched across the laurels read, “Honored and remembered.”

The moving experience of being here for the first time, Blaney said, “really just all hits you at once.”

“You respect Memorial Day, you understand what it represents. So you understand the people that have laid down their lives to their country, so that we can live in the country we live in,” said Blaney, in a dark suit, the jacket lined with an American flag print. “But really, until you’re here and you see it all, and you see everything that’s around it, it just puts it into another perspective for you of just how small you actually are, in this grand scheme of things. …

“It’s just a whole different kind of outlook on everything, so I definitely will be at the 600 this year with a different perspective, just because I’ve been here and have been able to be a part of it and understand it more.”

Blaney’s tour included viewing memorials to the astronauts aboard both the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, a walk-through of the Memorial Amphitheater and its Display Room of historic exhibits, and a welcome from North Carolina District 9 congressman Richard Hudson. Major Jake Bagwell handed Blaney a passport-sized copy of the Declaration of Independence in the receiving line. The inscription: “Hope you enjoyed your visit. Keep your pedal to the metal.”

Ryan Blaney greets Army chaplain Maj. Joanna Forbes at Arlington National Cemetery
Army chaplain, Maj. Joanna Forbes, greets Ryan Blaney in the Memorial Display Room at Arlington National Cemetery | Charlotte Motor Speedway photo

Blaney was also met by Army chaplain Maj. Joanna Forbes, who brought a large flag she received as a Christmas gift that commemorates the driver’s first Cup Series championship last year. Forbes brought the banner to unfurl for a photo with Blaney. Getting it autographed was an unexpected bonus.

“Not only is he gracious, but he’s the champ and he’s my favorite driver,” said Forbes, on staff at Arlington National for nearly a year and a half. She proclaimed her fandom dating back to Blaney’s days with Wood Brothers Racing, and anticipated his visit after his win in the 600-miler a year ago. “The fact that he also raises funds for Alzheimer’s and TBI (traumatic brain injury) through the Ryan Blaney Family Foundation is a cause near and dear to my heart because my dad died earlier this year of Alzheimer’s. So there’s more than one reason. He’s a great human being, and he’s also a great driver, so he’s a great champ for NASCAR.”

Just over three weeks remain until the 65th running of the Coca-Cola 600. Smith’s family has traditionally taken great care to ensure that the pre-race pageantry includes a respectful display of honor that underlies the crown-jewel event.

Wednesday marked Smith’s fourth visit to Arlington National with the reigning 600 champ, and he said the experience has been meaningful each time.

“I think you really have to let yourself be in the moment here at Arlington and take it all in,” Smith said. “At first, you might just think about the thousands of people that are buried here who all served our country in our armed forces, and then I also thought today about how special it is that we have as a country set aside this really, really beautiful place to not only memorialize but I think also celebrate what it means to serve in the military. What a great thing to do as a country.”

Blaney returns to competition this weekend at Kansas Speedway, kicking off a busy month that includes the Cup Series’ stops at historic venues in Darlington and North Wilkesboro before the annual endurance test in Charlotte. His victory in last year’s 600-miler was a pivotal point in his title-winning season, breaking a 59-race dry spell and celebrating with fans in the stands.

Blaney’s return to Charlotte this year as the defending winner now comes with a fresh, solemn perspective about the weekend’s deeper meaning.

“It did kind of get lost in the ether a little bit because it was in May, and then obviously, we went on to do some really cool things later. But it’ll be neat going back, trying to defend it,” Blaney said. “Honestly, coming here makes me want to win it even more than I did, because I want to come back. I want to do this again. I want to bring my family. I want them to see it. So that part, it even motivates me more to try to win it again.”