National Guard 54 Debuts in NASCAR Bud Shootout; Daytona 500 Next?
National Guard Bureau
ARLINGTON, Va., Feb. 13, 2003 Millions of fans have screamed themselves hoarse while watching stock cars, gleaming with familiar names and numbers, compete in Winston Cup races nationwide. Now a new contender seeks their approval.
Crowds got their first look at a brand new red, white and blue Ford emblazoned National Guard 54 when NASCAR's premier racing circuit roared to life Feb. 8 for the 2003 season at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Lt. Gen. Daniel James III and Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, directors of the Air and Army National Guard respectively, get acquainted with stock car driver Todd Bodine before he piloted the National Guard's new Winston Cup car in the Budweiser Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Feb. 8, 2003. Photo by Master Sgt. Bob Haskell, USA.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Twenty-year racing veteran Todd Bodine, 38, drove the new car that is bearing this country's colors and the National Guard name for a new team, BelCar Racing, and for the new season of major league racing that will officially begin with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 16.
The National Guard is the primary advertiser. The car's number, 54, represents the 50 states and four territories where Army and Air Guard units are located.
"This is a great opportunity. I feel like I'm driving for the whole country," said the younger brother of Winston Cup star Geoff Bodine before racing in the 70-lap Budweiser Shootout. This race is for drivers who started last year's Winston Cup races in the pole position, the No. 1 spot.
"Guard men and women are serving all over the world," said Bodine. "The car is red, white and blue. It's like I'm driving the American flag."
The team is also attaching decals in the shape of the STS- 107 space shuttle mission patch to the car in honor the seven Columbia astronauts who perished Feb. 1.
Bodine started eighth among 19 cars and was 13th in the pack of 18 that finished the race. The field included Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started last and finished first; defending Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, who finished 15th; and Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
The directors of the Army and Air National Guard were among the 75,000 fans who flocked to the 25th annual Shootout, which was run under the lights and on prime-time television for the first time.
"NASCAR is a team sport and a family event. That's why it's exciting to be a part of it," said Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, Army Guard director, who built and drove his own stock car for a couple of seasons when he was a young man in Iowa. "It's a way to reach the American people and tell the Guard's story. And NASCAR fans are very patriotic, very patriotic."
"So many Americans are watching these cars, and they will see that red, white and blue car," said Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, Air Guard director, while taking in his first stock car race. "Once again, the National Guard is connecting with the communities."
That means connecting with the whole community, including African- and Hispanic-American NASCAR fans, whose numbers have increased an average of 26 percent since 1999, according to the Daytona Beach "News-Journal." That's what BelCar majority owner Sam Belnavis hopes to accomplish. His team is trying to bring diversity into the world of auto racing by developing drivers and crew members from minorities, including African and Hispanic Americans.
Belnavis is a marketing and advertising executive who introduced the Miller Brewing Co. to NASCAR racing in 1981 when he was director of sports marketing. He signed Bobby Allison to pilot the No. 22 Miller High Life Buick. His partner is 32-year NASCAR veteran Travis Carter, a former crew chief for Winston Cup champions Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough.
"We're trying to change the face of racing. That's the challenge before us," said Cherise Belnavis-Johnson, Sam's daughter and the team's director of sponsor relations. "Travis brings the racing experience to the team that we need. My father brings the marketing experience that Travis needs."
BelCar has started its Motorsport Diversity Development Program to develop minority drivers in the Hooters Pro Cup Series as well as to bring racial diversity to the pit crew.
"We want to open up all parts of racing to minorities, not just the drivers," Belnavis-Johnson said.
That is important to National Guard leaders, who are also striving to attain more diversity in the Army and Air Guard ranks. The National Guard declared 2002 as its Year of Diversity, and Army Guard director Schultz insists the cause still lives.
"Diversity is not about a year. It's about a journey," he said.
And that journey, like National Guard 54's NASCAR career, has only just begun.
(Master Sgt. Bob Haskell is senior correspondent in the National Guard Bureau Public Affairs Office, Arlington, Va.)