Mission 600 Accomplished By Land, Sea and Air
Prior to the historic 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, five prominent drivers who are part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family made interactive, educational visits to regional military bases representing all five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The visits - which covered land, sea and air - were part of Mission 600, a collaboration between the speedway and the Department of Defense to give drivers a first-hand look into life in the military to preview the speedway's patriotic pre-race Salute to the Troops.
With Wednesday marking the first day of Military Appreciation Month, below are recaps and quotes for each Mission 600 visit.
DENNY HAMLIN - Naval Station Norfolk on April 11
Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry, took an interactive tour of the USS San Jacinto, a 567-foot-long guided-missile cruiser - which fired the opening shots of Operation Desert Storm and, more recently, provided support to Hurricane Irma relief efforts last year.
Hamlin also participated in a ship handling trainer simulation, which gave the veteran driver an in-depth education in maneuvering a warship at sea. Additionally, Hamlin took part in a weapon-firing training scenario and launched a simulated Tomahawk cruise missile from the USS San Jacinto's combat information center (CIC), which serves as the tactical command center for long-range strike capability in battle.
"It's amazing how fast things happen here and how well everyone is trained," Hamlin said. "I can't say enough about representing the military at the race track. Seeing the sailors out here who are protecting our country is amazing to see. I got to take the helm and shoot a couple of missiles, which was awesome, but really for me it's about honoring these guys and seeing the work they put in to continue to defend our freedom. This is the ultimate display of teamwork if there ever is one. You see everyone working in sync and they're trained in all sorts of things in case chaos breaks loose. It's great to see the teamwork they put in and it's something the race teams look at and say, 'How can we make ourselves better?' based on what they do here."
The Coca-Cola 600 also serves as the opening for the NASCAR Salutes initiative. In a 600 Miles of Remembrance tribute, every race car's windshield will carry the name of a fallen serviceman or servicewoman. Hamlin's windshield will carry the name of U.S. Navy Ensign Sarah Mitchell, a native of Feasterville-Trevose, Pennsylvania, and Virginia Tech graduate who was stationed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109) which is also stationed at Naval Station Norfolk. Mitchell passed away in July of 2018.
"It'd mean a lot to me (to win with her name on the car)," Hamlin said. "Obviously, this is a special area for me since I grew up racing in this area. Nothing would make me prouder to represent (Mitchell) and her family than being in Victory Lane at the Coca-Cola 600. That's a big one on my list I'd love to check off. I've finished second there a few times. Getting a win is certainly high on the priority list, but the most important thing is we're out there paying tribute to our military."
RYAN NEWMAN - Fort Bragg on April 17
As a patriotic preview of Charlotte Motor Speedway's Memorial Day weekend Salute to the Troops, Newman visited soldiers at Fort Bragg - the nation's largest military installation featuring more than 50,000 active duty personnel of the U.S. Army.
Additionally, Newman joined Rachel and Jamie Nolen, a Gold Star Family, in unveiling the No. 6 Ford Mustang that Newman will drive in the Coca-Cola 600. As part of NASCAR's 600 Miles of Remembrance program, Newman's car will feature the name of the late Sgt. James Nolen, who passed away in 2009 in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
During his trip on Wednesday, Newman - outfitted in full infantry gear - took a ride in a RAZOR military vehicle and participated in a parachute packing demonstration before his race car's paint scheme was revealed in a special presentation.
"It's an honor for me to drive a race car that has a fallen soldier's name on it," Newman said. "To have their family at the race track and what Coca-Cola, Charlotte Motor Speedway and NASCAR does, it's such a family-oriented sport to give back in a special way on Memorial Day weekend. To have Sgt. Nolen's name on the windshield is just a small part of what I'll have in the form of an angel riding inside my car on race day.
"The class of soldiers, I've always said, is second to none," Newman said of the Army soldiers he met. "The personalities, the character, all the good parts of being a human show up in U.S. Army soldiers. Today showed me that even more. It's important that we all embrace that and no family does it better than NASCAR."
BUBBA WALLACE - Seymour Johnson Air Force Base on April 23
Coca-Cola Racing Family driver Bubba Wallace, the driver of the No. 43 Air Force Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports, visited Seymour Johnson Air Force Base to meet with airmen and take an orientation flight code-named "Joust 43" aboard an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet.
"It was an awesome day," Wallace said. "I enjoy coming to Seymour Johnson and just being a part of the organization, obviously Richard Petty Motorsports with its partnership with the Air Force is great. Being able to go up in the fighter jet, whenever they ask me if I want to keep going up I'm going to say 'Yes,' because there's no cooler thing to do. We were going 500 miles per hour - just a little bit faster than what we do. You get to take in the world that we live in from a different perspective. Having the freedoms that we do, it ties back in to why our military is so important and why our sport supports the military."
Hosted by the 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, the Air Force-sponsored Richard Petty Motorsports driver received emergency egress and parachute training as well as cockpit familiarization before he arrived at the 333rd Fighter Squadron - whose pilots are known as the "Lancers" - for pre-flight briefing. Following his training, Wallace took to the air with fighter pilot Capt. John "Wraith" Tilton for a 90-minute flight spanning from the Appalachian Mountains to the Outer Banks.
"This flight kicked my butt," Wallace added. "Just to be here and take everything in, you always heard people getting deployed when we were growing up and there's so much more to it than that. I can't think these airmen enough and the brave men and women who fight for our country."
KYLE LARSON - Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island on April 29
Kyle Larson and members of his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing pit crew joined FOX NASCAR studio host Shannon Spake for a comprehensive look at life as a Marine recruit at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island - which has trained Marines since 1915. Larson's experience included descending a five-story rappel tower, taking on an assault course and standing at attention at the iconic yellow footsteps amid orders from a drill instructor.
"Everything was very new to me and a really cool experience," Larson said. "A good friend of mine from high school is a drill instructor in California, so it was neat to see what he gets to do every day. Going down the (rappel) wall was awesome. I tried to do it as quick as I could before I got nervous. The whole experience was cool. Seeing the respect everyone has here for one another - they're a whole big team, similar to us. I can't say thanks enough for what they do for Americans as well as for showing us such great hospitality."
Larson also learned the story of Marine Sgt. Jeanette Winters, who attended Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island for recruit training in 1997. Sgt. Winters perished on Jan. 9, 2002, in a plane crash in Pakistan. She became the first female member of the U.S. military to be killed in the War on Terror. As part of the 600 Miles of Remembrance program, Larson's car will carry Sgt. Winters' name on its windshield during the Coca-Cola 600.
"The Coca-Cola 600 is an event that we all look forward to in part because we get to honor our military," Larson said. "Being able to honor Sgt. Jeanette Winters is going to be really special. After coming here and getting to see what she went through in becoming a Marine, having her name on our car in the 600 will be very special."
AUSTIN DILLON - Coast Guard Station Wrightsville Beach on April 30
Coast Guard members hosted Austin Dillon and members of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing crew for a search-and-rescue training scenario aboard a 45-foot RBM (Response Boat - Medium), answering a distress call and learning the intricacies of rescue rope exercises.
"It was awesome," Dillon said of his first Coast Guard visit. "Those boats are unbelievable machines. It's like driving a big jet ski. We had a blast just seeing how smooth they are and listening to how the guys go through everything, they're very good at what they do.
"I'm jealous that they get to whip around out there on those boats to save lives. It's a very cool experience to see all the hard work they put into taking over these jobs. I really thank them for their service."
Dillon has sampled life in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Coast Guard in his first two Mission 600 visits, both of which gave the Welcome, North Carolina, native a new perspective in his appreciation for the military. As part of the 600 Miles of Remembrance program, Dillon will carry the name of a fallen member of the U.S. Armed Forces on his race car's windshield during the Coca-Cola 600.
"It's very special," Dillon said. "I feel like our fallen soldiers ride along with us. Their families become a part of our racing family. The Coca-Cola 600 and Memorial Day weekend is probably my favorite weekend of the year. When we have the flyovers and everything that goes into that race, the preview of it is fun for us to watch and see the military represented so well."
Through the speedway's "Patriot Partners" program, race fans or corporate customers can buy a ticket for a member of the U.S. Armed Forces for just $25. Tickets will be distributed to active-duty personnel and their families through the USO.
Prior to the green flag, ticketholders to the Coca-Cola 600 can also enjoy a FREE pre-race concert featuring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Cheap Trick.
As part of the salute to the military, race fans are encouraged to use the hashtag #KnowYourMil.