Tributes to military fill Winston circuit


Auto Racing

March 23, 2003|By SANDRA McKEE

We're at war. The sports world goes on. Sometimes without a thought or a word.

But not in Winston Cup stock car racing.

The military, the war and the sacrifices being made are recognized, remembered - even felt on a personal level - in Cup racing.

The series will race in Bristol Tenn., today. But NASCAR president Mike Helton said the organization "will do whatever is necessary to continue supporting our country's efforts, including schedule adjustments if ... appropriate."

In the meantime, drivers and teams are doing their parts.

Driver Jerry Nadeau, whose team is sponsored by the U.S. Army, spent New Year's with soldiers in Afghanistan. He drove a tank, made friends and finds himself remembering them this week.

Todd Bodine, whose car is sponsored by the Army National Guard, recently visited amputee soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Ricky Rudd's car is partly sponsored by the Air Force. Two weeks ago, Rudd and his Wood Brothers-owned team visited the troops at Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas. They plan to do the same at the Dover, Del., air base again before the June 1 race at Dover International Speedway.

On Thursday, driver Jimmie Johnson is to be at Fort Meade to announce a partnership with the USO.

Military jets regularly do fly-overs at Winston Cup races. Military honor guards unfurl the American flag. Fans display their American flags every week in track infields, not just during wartime.

And many of the drivers are adamant about their support. For example, driver Jimmy Spencer, who can be a bit of a wild card, is roundly proclaiming his patriotism.

"I wake up every morning and say a prayer for our leaders," Spencer said last week. "I pray that the good Lord blesses them with guidance and leadership and wisdom. To me, I don't think either country wanted war, but you still have to protect the American people. We voted George Bush in, so I'm supporting him.

"Is this going to free us up from future problems? Not a chance. But I believe you've got to handle it one at a time, and that's what we're doing."

Spencer adds that he is more fit to be a driver than a president.

"When Saddam [Hussein] challenged Bush to a public debate a few weeks ago, Bush didn't even acknowledge the challenge, because it wouldn't accomplish anything," he said. "It was petty. It was absolutely the right thing to do, not accepting Saddam's challenge. And that's why I couldn't be president. Not only would I have accepted it, I would've given him my calling card number."

Fierce loyalty. It is part of the appeal the sport shares with its fans.

"We believe there is a special bond between our troops and our sport," Helton said. "Every branch of the American military is represented in NASCAR racing, and our chairman, Bill France, has always described NASCAR fans as `the kind of people who go to war and win wars for America.' Many of those fans are currently deployed throughout the world, doing just that."

For love, not money

Driver Dion Ciccarelli of Severn finished 24th in the NASCAR Busch Series race in Darlington, S.C., last weekend. It may not sound like that big a deal, but listen to Barry Usher, the team's public relations manager, describe the accomplishment.

"As you know, Glidden Motorsports with Dion driving is not currently sponsored. It consists of an all-volunteer team - meaning every team member has a full-time job outside of the team. No one on the team gets paid - not even Dion.

"Team owner Marty Glidden was committed to going to Darlington, but admitted it would be a tight budget. The entire team slept in the infield in two motor coaches. All the meals were cooked at the motor coaches by a team member. I think there was a total of 12 or 13 people sleeping in those two motor coaches, even on the floors. This saved the team about $5,000 for rooms, meals."

Without any experience at the track, with limited practice because of rain, with one set fewer tires than the full-time teams had and despite a 41st-place starting position, Ciccarelli was still running at the end of the race, a few laps down, but without a scratch on his car.

The team continues to search for sponsorship as it prepares for a May 2 race in Richmond.

Welcome sunshine

The first winners at Hagerstown Speedway this season were Gary Stuhler of Greencastle, Pa., and Bret Hearn of Sussex, N.J., who won 30-lap events in the ITSI Late Model and Big Block Modified feature events, respectively, last weekend.

After three weeks of snow, ice and rain, the track finally kicked off the 2003 season and hopes to continue it today with the Small Block Modifieds and Modified Lites (dwarf cars) and the ITSI Late Models. Racing begins at 1 p.m. Gates open at 11 a.m.

Nuts and bolts

Monkton's Marc Bunting, in a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, finished sixth in the GT Class and 19th overall at the 12 Hours of Sebring last weekend. Catonsville driver Jeff Altenburg, meanwhile, suffered mechanical problems that forced his Dodge Viper GTS-R GTS team to retire after 280 laps for a 28th overall finish. Fifty-five cars competed.

The guest lineup for the In The Pits radio show on WAGE (1200 AM), Wednesday at 6 p.m., will be NHRA Top Fuel Funny Car champ John Force, Virginia Motorspeedway's Dave Seay and Potomac Speedway's Mark Potter.

The American Le Mans Series is adding an event at Road Atlanta for the 2003 season. The race, on June 29, will fill the spot left by the cancellation of the Grand Prix event in Washington.

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