NASCAR, military forge a lasting relationship

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Cars idled to a stop in the midst of a hotly-contested race. Crew members, geared up for stops and tracking the seconds per lap and fuel being burned, slipped off their caps and lined up silently on pit road. NASCAR officials took off their helmets. Fans stood by their seats.

The roar died and silence fell eerily over Charlotte Motor Speedway as NASCAR joined the nation in observing a moment of remembrance for troops past and present on Memorial Day last season.

It was just another testament of the respect with which NASCAR has generally handled all things military. Patriotism has long been a key component of NASCAR races.

From the weekly pre-race flyovers to the stoppage of a race for a Presidentially-requested moment of silence, NASCAR traditionally takes time to give a nod to those defending the country. In recent years, branches of the military have also become involved in team sponsorship.

Military appreciation days, driver visits to sites such as Walter Reed Hospital, and ties to the USO and other programs highlight just how far NASCAR goes to show its respect for troops stationed around the world.

This weekend offers an example. Ryan Newman drives the US Army car in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Hendrick Motorsports entry carries sponsorship from the National Guard. David Stremme's car carries the logos of the Air National Guard. The Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army have previously sponsored cars, as has the National Guard and Coast Guard.

Kasey Kahne just announced his team's participation in the "Proud to Serve Those Who Serve" program of his sponsor, Budweiser. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is participating in a Cell Phones for Soldiers announcement this weekend.

And the Richmond Cup race is named for Crown Royal contest winner Heath Calhoun, a retired member of the Army and Purple Heart recipient. Calhoun, a former member of the 101st Airborne and a veteran of the Iraq war,was severely injured when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee in 2003. He had both legs amputated above the knee.

Jeff Gordon, who also carries the National Guard sponsorship at times, took time to visit with the Special Forces near Austin, Texas, prior to a recent race.

The four-time Cup champion was clearly moved by the experience.

"I tell you what, it was awesome," he said. "It was one of the coolest experiences. We were flown in a Blackhawk helicopter, got to go through some different missions training with them. These guys are unbelievable. They are just the elite of the Special Forces. They are so versatile. What these guys have to go through training-wise, what they have to do when they do go into battle - it's unbelievable.

"I got a small taste of it, had a lot of fun shooting a lot of different things, which was cool and actually going into some rooms and clearing some rooms. Holding that rifle as a team with other Special Forces soldiers, it was cool. The fact that we're carrying them on board this weekend really takes our relationship with the National Guard to a whole other level. Having that one-on-one experience with those actual soldiers was amazing."

Newman, too, has seemed amazed and awed by the experiences he's had with his Stewart-Haas Racing sponsor.

He's met all kinds of military heroes through the sponsorship when they've visited the track or when he has attended non-racing events.

"(I) just thank everybody for what they do ... to give us the opportunity to do what we do and love each and every day and generations to come," Newman said. "We appreciate very much the giving and selflessness and support that those people give us."

He says that racing, like many others, is a people business. And working with a sponsor that is about people, and not a product, has opened his eyes to just how much the Army does for individuals. In interviews over the past couple of years, he has gone out of his way to note the work of soldiers around the world.

Now, Kahne - through sponsor Budweiser - is also getting involved. As part of the program, the corporation and its wholesalers will donate $250,000 in May and June to the USO's Operation Enduring Care program, designed to help with the recovery needs of wounded service members and their families. Kahne is going to drive a special car in honor of the program.

"Racing with the Budweiser Armed Forces logo on my hood during the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends is a great way for our team to raise awareness about Operation Enduring Care," Kahne said. "This car is going to get a lot of attention when it rolls onto the track."