NASCAR Nation gathered in Charlotte this past weekend for Memorial Day, and celebrated it in their own inimitable way. A sport which already embodies the values and priorities of God, family and country every week, took special care to reflect the true spirit of the day. Honor and respect for every fallen man and woman from every branch of the military was given. It was not unusual for a NASCAR race, as that is the norm, but the weekend rose above even the normal standard for the sport.
Genuine heroes, like Master Sergeant Cedric Jermel King, who was grand marshal of the race on Sunday, were the speakers during the openings of both the History 300 and the Coca-Cola 600 races. People who had fought and been wounded, or shown exceptional bravery, or strength of character were among those who were given the microphone to exhort the crowd to remembrance. No matter what the political or personal views held by those in the crowd, there were few who were not moved by the emotion of the event.
A fly-over by military aircraft, along with demonstrations of military firepower, fueled the atmosphere of excitement. When members of the military were asked to stand in the crowd to be recognized, people all around them fell over themselves to shake their hands and thank them for their service. Service men and women walking to and from their assigned parts in the pre-race spectacular were given standing ovations from every section. It was not just the ceremonies planned by NASCAR which created the tone for the event, but the fans who took every opportunity to demonstrate their support and respect. For a weekend, politics did not matter one bit.
The Raceway Ministries, with many veterans as members, were present all weekend, making breakfast for campers and serving where they could. On Sunday morning before the race, their breakfast was accompanied by prayers and exhortations which moved the crowd of bleary-eyed campers, just barely awake after a night of celebrations. When they began a flag-folding ceremony for a service woman recently deceased, the crowd was silent. When they played taps, there was not a dry eye. NASCAR Nation celebrated Memorial Day in their own way, without the cameras and crowds, in many such moments across the area surrounding the track as well as across the country, before they even went to the races.
Among the fans were veterans from all of the branches and from many different times and conflicts. While they all had a different experience of their service, to a person they agreed that the races in Charlotte were a type of haven, where they felt welcomed and appreciated.
Clarence served in Vietnam, and returned to an nation which did not show that same type of appreciation. In fact, he admitted to years of depression and bitterness at the treatment he and his brothers received when they got back home. He said that the weekly demonstration of support at every race had been a balm for him. In his opinion, the sport was a beacon of patriotism, and attending the races is Charlotte was like coming home.
Brandon is a young man currently serving. When first speaking with him, it is difficult to get him to even admit that he is in the service. He is as proud and patriotic as any service man, but he described his hesitation as a habit formed out of reacting to many non-military residents of the town by his base. He told stories of service men and women being charged higher interest rates on vehicle purchases, and even an outright hostility after years of conflicts between military and non-military residents. At the track, however, he was discovering an entirely different experience. NASCAR Nation breaks through the scars of indignities past and present.
The military experience in America is varied, with ideological and political complications which cannot be ignored. Even those who are opposed to the nation’s military policy or the individuals holding office or rank, however, can find common ground on Memorial Day. It is a day of remembrance, and a time to honor those who took up the mantle of defender and gave their lives. In a nation which thrives because it allows for all people and perspectives to have a voice in governance, there will always be some who are at odds with the current administration or policies. It is the impetus for the legislative process, and the way the governed keep check on those in power. Memorial Day is about people, however, and at its core, so is NASCAR. When the two meet for a weekend every year, the rest fades away as insignificant, and service men and women everywhere can feel heart of a grateful nation.
Commentary By Jim Malone
2014 NASCAR Media Guide (Print)
Q&A Coca-Cola Fan Experience Charlotte Motor Speedway 5/25/14
Personal interviews Rock City Campground 5/24/14 and 5/25/14