Jimmie Johnson will have a little extra inspiration when he rounds the racetrack during the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Johnson dedicated his car to Spc. Michael Rodriguez, from 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, who died when a vehicle-driven improvised explosive device drove into his patrol base in Iraq on April 23, 2007. Johnson said the dedication meant more than just a name on his car.
“To meet his Family and everybody here that he worked with and knew him so well and hear stories about Michael and get to know him through these stories, it’s gone to the deepest level,” he said. “I’m just truly honored to carry his name on the racecar and honored to put a smile on his Family’s face and hopefully take him to victory lane.”
Rodriguez’s mother Lorie Southerland, who serves as the director of Fort Bragg’s Fisher House, said the day was truly special for her and the Family as well.
“It means so much to us that Michael is still remembered,” she said. “It’s been 10 years this past April and for him to be honored in such a special way and for NASCAR to do this, not just for Michael but for other Soldiers too is to bring to memory everyone that has died for our country.”
Southerland described Rodriguez as someone who never colored inside the lines. She said he always wanted to be a Soldier, and used to join road marches with Soldiers in Ranger school as they passed by his house.
“He wasn’t even in school yet, so he was probably three or four, and he would see them coming and put on his little backpack and out the door he’d go,” Southerland said.
According to Southerland, Rodriguez became “airborne certified” when he jumped off a second story balcony in his younger years.
“It was in his blood,” she explained.
Rodriguez’s former leader said this made him a very diligent Soldier. Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Cobb, command sergeant major, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Abn. Div. said he could always count on Rodriguez to complete all tasks assigned to him.
Cobb said when members of the 5th Sqdn., 73rd Cav. see Rodriguez’s name on Johnson’s car, they will also think about all members the unit has lost over the years.
“We’re honoring Michael with his name on the car, but he is just representing everyone we’ve lost here in the 82nd and our fellow Army Family and our sister services,” he said.
Southerland agreed and emphasized that Memorial Day is more than just the first day of summer, beaches and grilling out.
“The biggest thing is that people remember what the day is (about),” she said. “Yes, go out and have your barbecues and go to the beach, but remember why we get to do it. It’s because of the sacrifices of so many.”
These sacrifices will serve as motivation for Johnson this weekend as he drives for his ninth win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Whatever the outcome, Southerland said she knows Rodriguez will have a grin on his face, “from ear to ear.”