Despite Rain, Pepsi 400 Fans, Drivers Support Troops
By Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
American Forces Press Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., July 3, 2005 Rain cascaded down the high-banked turns of the Daytona International Speedway July 2, dousing the track, drivers and their crews, and diehard race fans with steady precipitation and foreboding that the 47th running of the Pepsi 400 might not run at all. But much like the infield mud that bonded to race-goers' shoes, the 180,000 in attendance stuck around and patiently waited through a two-and-a-half-hour weather delay.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld heads on to the track for pre-race ferstivities at the Pepsi 400. Rumsfeld served as grand marshal for the July 2 NASCAR event. Photo by Capt. Steve Alvarez, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In addition to showing what one fan called "plain old American stick-to-itiveness" by weathering the elements and later a race that finished at nearly 2 a.m., the crowd also showed another American trait, unity, as the race's grand marshal, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, made his way around the track to visit the Army-, Air Force- and National Guard-sponsored team cars.
Rumsfeld moved around happily, signing autographs, posing for pictures with race fans, and smiling and waving to fans as they informally yelled to him "You're doing a great job, Donny!" and "Go get 'em Don!" and "Get 'er done, Don!" Amid a backdrop of thousands of swaying U.S. flags flying atop fans' recreational vehicles and under gray, low-hanging skies, massive jet dryers blew air on the deluged track. In the meantime, soldiers and fans enjoyed each other's company.
"I think Americans historically are patriotic when we are involved in a war," Army Cpl. Alex Croteau said. Croteau was a guest at the pre-race festivities.
Les Muller, a race fan from nearby Orlando, wore a helmet that sported two U.S. flags and a POW/MIA flag, with "Support Our Troops" emblazoned on the back and front of his headgear. "We've got family over there in Iraq," Muller said. "I wanted to show my support. It's the least I can do."
Joe Nemechek, driver of the No. 1 U.S. Army car, met with soldiers and Rumsfeld before the race. Speaking to a soldier who wore a desert camouflage uniform, Nemechek said that soldiers "give us something to pull for."
Delayed enlistment recruits who leave for basic training later this year also visited with Rumsfeld and Nemechek, huddling in a tight circle, collecting autographs, capturing pictures, and getting some personal time with the two men.
"I'm very proud of what you're doing," Nemechek told the recruits and a half dozen soldiers. "I'll try to keep our car out in front," he said. "Thank you very much for what you do."
The small crowd responded with a loud "Hooah," the Army's motivational cry.
Above the garages and the din of pit row, a vocal fan shouted, "Joe Nemechek supports the troops!" from a viewing stand. The remark prompted both Rumsfeld and Nemechek to wave at the man and give him a thumbs up sign. Onlookers cheered as Rumsfeld walked over and signed an autograph book the fan had lowered on a string from the elevated viewing area.
Nemechek, 41, of Lakeland, Fla., finished 15th after being clipped by another car in lap 73, causing him to hit the wall. He had been running in the top three slots for most of the race in his Chevy car and was in seventh when he was hit. He finished 10th in the race in 2004.
Rumsfeld then visited with Air Force airmen and Ricky Rudd, driver of the Air Force's No. 21 Ford. The 48-year-old race veteran from Chesapeake, Va., felt good about the car prior to the race, but qualified for a position in row 18.
"We worked on race setup the whole time, and qualifying was the first time we had a chance to see what we had," Rudd said before the race. "For morale purposes, I'd like to be starting farther up the road," he said.
Rudd finished the race 13th. He finished 17th in 2004.
Rumsfeld completed his tour of the military teams by visiting the National Guard team and driver Greg Biffle, who won the Pepsi 400 in 2003 and was the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series point leader entering the race. Biffle said he has been enjoying his success with the National Guard team.
"I'm making more money," Biffle said laughing. "I haven't got any new TV shows or movies that I'm signed up for yet, but it's been a success. That's really fun," he said. "So the fans, it seems like they can relate to every driver and be a fan of more than one driver, and that's kind of neat to see all the fans."
The 35-year-old Vancouver, Wash., driver started in row 9 and fell behind after his car crashed in lap 73 in the same chain-reaction crash that nearly knocked Nemechek out of the race. Biffle drove his No. 16 Ford to finish the race 36th.
At the drivers' meeting, Rumsfeld was introduced before a large crowd and received a standing ovation. He expressed his thanks to the NASCAR community.
"Everywhere I go around the world, the troops talk about NASCAR and how much it reminds them of home," Rumsfeld said. "We're fortunate to have folks serving in Afghanistan (and) Iraq. ... We're fortunate for their service," he said.
"We're behind them and we support them," Rumsfeld added. Rumsfeld thanked what has been dubbed the "NASCAR nation" for their support of the military and shook hands with drivers and crews after the meeting, some of whom wore "America Supports You" shirts. America Supports You is a Defense Department program that showcases the many ways Americans support the nation's men and women in uniform.
As the sun set, Air Force F-15 Eagles from Florida's Eglin Air Force Base roused the crowd with low passes above the track, their afterburners glowing in the colorless sky. A Marine Corps color guard presented the colors as recording artist JoJo sang the national anthem.
Rumsfeld later started the 400-mile, 160-lap race by commanding the drivers to start their engines.
"On behalf of the wonderful men and women that serve our nation all around the world, it's a privilege to say, 'Gentlemen, start your engines,'" Rumsfeld said.
Tony Stewart won the race, his first victory at the Pepsi 400, with Jamie McMurray second and Dale Earnhardt Jr. third.