Purple Heart recipient, Charlotte native, opera singer and NASCAR fan. Cpl. John Hyland is many things, and now he can add one more honor to his list of life accomplishments. Hyland has been selected to sing the national anthem for the May 30 Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

Cpl. Hyland joined the U.S. Army when he was 33 years old. He trained to be a scout, an elite position that performs reconnaissance and enemy intelligence gathering missions. Hyland was deployed to Iraq in October 2006 where he was part of a small team of scouts who went into dangerous territory searching for combatants. On a mission near Baghdad on Sept. 11, 2007, Hyland was wounded when his team’s vehicle set off two anti-tank bombs. The blast crushed both of his feet and fractured bones in his back and pelvis. Despite 33 operations to heal his wounds, Hyland still had to have his lower left leg amputated.

Hyland received the Purple Heart for his heroism. His hometown paper, The Charlotte Observer, covered his story. The holidays were approaching and his wife had no way to get Hyland home to Charlotte from Brooke Army Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where he was recuperating. Rick Hendrick, who owns the NASCAR team bearing his name, as well as car dealerships in Charlotte, read the story and gave the Hyland family a new minivan equipped with a hydraulic ramp, to make sure the soldier could be home for the holidays.

Cpl. Hyland’s story is a lead chapter in the new book, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola, which recounts how this life-long race fan grew up watching races at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., where his grandfather ran several hot dog stands. When he was 17 years old, he landed a guest services job at Charlotte Motor Speedway and on his breaks Hyland would sneak down to the frontstretch fence to watch the racing. During qualifying one weekend, Dale Earnhardt spun just in front of a stunned Hyland. After getting out and inspecting his wrecked race car, Earnhardt approached Hyland and asked “How ya doin’ kid?”.

 “Uh, um, I’m alright,” Hyland replied at the time. He asked Earnhardt if he was hurt and Earnhardt replied “Hey, what can you do? It’s just another race car.”

Hyland admits that from then on, he was hooked on NASCAR.

“Looking back I realize that’s what I love about this sport,” he said. “These drivers have so much going on but they look you in the eye and say, ‘hello kid,’ sign an autograph or meet a sick kid. There are so many good people in the sport doing unnoticed, decent, nice things, all the time.”  

After graduating high school, Hyland enrolled in the North Carolina School of the Arts and began singing opera, even serving as an understudy for Phantom of the Opera in New York. He struggled to make a good living through opera and returned to restaurant work in the Southeast where he met his wife Erica. The couple had two children while John ran several Hooter’s restaurants.

It was at one of those restaurants in Washington, D.C., where he met and was inspired by members of the local police force. Hyland returned to Charlotte and joined a private police agency. On the job he met a veteran fresh out of the U.S. Army who extolled the virtues of a military career, prompting Hyland to take the army entrance test which led him down the path of military life.

For Hyland, it is difficult to put into words what his selection as the national anthem singer truly means.

“This is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “It’s more than an honor for me to sing the anthem in front of thousands of fellow race fans. I’m proud to represent the Army, my country, my family, Charlotte and all of the wounded soldiers out there.

“I believe there’s a silver lining to everything,” Hyland continued.  “Events in our lives happen for a reason. My injuries provided the opportunity to hit the reset button in life. Singing the Star Spangled Banner on Memorial Day weekend at one of NASCAR’s marquee races is hopefully the start of my new singing career.”

Hyland’s participation in the Let Freedom Race Coca-Cola 600 pre-race show is just one part of the spectacular tribute planned by Charlotte Motor Speedway that will honor generations of men and women who have served, are currently serving or have made the ultimate sacrifice in the U.S. armed forces. The Coca-Cola 600 pre-race festivities will honor veterans from World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and more modern-day conflicts including Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, as well as active military currently serving worldwide. Special fly-overs, static displays and decorated heroes from each era will be featured as part of the festivities.

Tickets for all May races at Charlotte Motor Speedway can be purchased online or by calling the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS. Friends and family four-pack tickets start at just $39.75 per person for the Coca-Cola 600 and at $35 per person for the NASCAR Sprint All Star Race on May 22. Interest-free payment plans are available.

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