“Drivers, start your engines!” These are the famous four words heard every Sunday around 6:30 p.m. during the Memorial Day weekend to start NASCAR’s only 600-mile race that pits muscle against machine, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
However, before the start of the grueling race that tests the grit and guts of 40 talented drivers, more than 600 Fort Bragg service members participate in a military appreciation pre-race event in front of 140,000 enthusiastic fans.
From Humvees, a HIMARS rocket launcher and howitzers to troops making their way through the grandstand from various entryways as Lee Greenwood excites the crowd with “God Bless the USA,” the moment is captivating, emotional and patriotic. The audience gives the service members a standing ovation, thunderous cheers, salutes and “high-fives” as they head toward the track.
Additionally, three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters propel through the sky, a color guard marches in rhythm onto center stage, a firing party renders a 21-gun salute and the 82nd Airborne Division Chorus proudly sings The Star-Spangled Banner while troops unfurl two huge American flags on the track’s infield. Also, a Fort Bragg senior official addresses the fans and gets them pumped for the race.
“But wait … there’s more,” like the words spoken on a late night infomercial. Out of the 600 participating troops, 40 are selected to introduce their favorite NASCAR driver. From Jimmie Johnson to the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr., each service member adds their own style, flair and flavor, which is well received with a cool fist bump from the driver or loud roars and jeers from the racing fanatics. The entire Memorial Day weekend pre-race celebration and racing experience can be viewed from a colossal big-screen TV that towers on the speedway.
“My Family thoroughly enjoys the pre-race activities and NASCAR’s service member oriented atmosphere,” said Chief Warrant Officer Paul Williams Jr., a paratrooper from the 82nd Abn. Div. and a key leader of the troops participating in the festivities. “It’s truly an incredible scene and a great opportunity to be up close and personal with the NASCAR community.
Williams added that what NASCAR and its fans give back to Fort Bragg is beyond measure.
“This community takes us in as their own and makes us feel right at home,” he said.
However, let’s shift into reverse to see how this spectacular military salute comes together.
The military appreciation pre-race event, which showcases power, pride and pageantry, began approximately 12 years ago when NASCAR and Fort Bragg joined forces. The goal was to ensure the pre-race festivities display gratitude and support for service members along with their Families and the sacrifices they make for the nation.
In order for the show to come to fruition, the Fort Bragg Public Affairs Community Relations team starts coordinating for the gala in November. This includes reaching out to and working with numerous units throughout the installation for the 600 troops and their transportation to Charlotte, static display support and the submission of an exception to policy to the Department of the Army for approval of a UH-60 Black Hawk flyover or rappelling demonstration.
As race day gets closer, the community relations team huddles on several occasions with key unit leaders in charge of the service members participating in the pre-race show. Additionally, a site visit to the speedway is organized with NASCAR officials to discuss in detail the various moving pieces and the minute-by-minute schedule for race day which includes finalizing print, broadcast and radio interview requests.
On race day at the crack of dawn, the 600 service members meet, board 18 buses and depart from Fort Bragg’s Soldier Support Center headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway. Following the 9 a.m. arrival of the troops, the track officials provide each with one of the 3,000 tickets donated by NASCAR to Fort Bragg, a wristband and a food voucher to assure accessibility through the security gates and to the vendors.
At 9:30 a.m., a two-hour pre-race rehearsal is held on the track to ensure the participants are on the same sheet of music when the celebration begins later in the day. After the pre-race rehearsal, the service members and some of their Families tour the track, the drivers’ garages and soak in the tunes of live performances from musical artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Big & Rich.
Following a few hours of relaxation, the service members amass for the 4:30 p.m. salute to the troops.
Larry McMahan, senior manager, live shows and production, CSM Sport & Entertainment, said the Coca-Cola 600 pre-race event is one of the coolest shows he does all year.
“To be a part of such a big day is humbling to say the least,” said McMahan. “The anthem package during the pre-race that includes colors, invocation, Amazing Grace, a 21-gun salute, Taps, and the (national) anthem still gives me goose bumps every year. It’s always an honor to work with such great people from Fort Bragg.”
When the checkered flag is waved, a winner is crowned in Victory Lane and the drivers switch off their engines. But, on the Sunday before Memorial Day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the service members, the drivers, NASCAR and the fans are all winners.
Everyone wins by taking time to honor the sacrifices of America’s service members. The engines may shut down, but the relationship between NASCAR and Fort Bragg keeps idling until the planning commences again in November.