Know Your Military

NASCAR's Hamlin Swaps Steering Wheel for Ship Helm

May 21, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

Denny Hamlin might be a pro when it comes to race cars, but not at taking the helm of a ship — something the NASCAR driver realized quickly when he toured the USS San Jacinto at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia.

Hamlin stopped by the base to better understand the jobs of sailors in the Navy, which he'll be representing at this year's Coca-Cola 600 race. It's tradition for the annual Memorial Day weekend event to salute military heroes, so several of NASCAR's best are showing their appreciation with a new tradition — racing in honor of each service branch.

For Hamlin, that's the Navy.

A civilian holds the wheel and looks at the controls on the bridge of a Navy cruiser as sailors look on.
At The Helm
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin takes the helm of the USS San Jacinto at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., April 11, 2019, during his orientation ahead of the Coca-Cola 600 race in which he’ll represent the Navy.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 190411-D-DB155-002C

After boarding the San Jacinto and being handed an official ship cap with his last name stitched onto it, Hamlin was escorted to the bridge, where he took the helm and learned what it takes to steer the 567-foot cruiser.

"This is the ultimate display of teamwork," Hamlin said. "Everyone has a specific title or duty, but they're trained in all kinds of different things just in case chaos breaks loose."

A civilian stands with sailors on the deck of a ship while holding a framed U.S. flag and a certificate. An MK 45 5-inch lightweight gun is in the background.
Sailor Flag
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin accepts a flag from sailors that was flown on the USS San Jacinto at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., April 11, 2019.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 190411-D-DB155-006C

Next stop: the ship's forecastle, which is the outdoor deck that makes up the front part of the ship. There, Hamlin met and took photos with several sailors before swapping flags with them. Hamlin gave the crew a signed Charlotte Motor Speedway flag and, in return, received a Navy flag that will be flown at the raceway during the Coca-Cola 600. Hamlin learned his car will also be stenciled with the name of 23-year-old Ensign Sarah Mitchell, who died during a small-boat incident in the Red Sea in July 2018 while stationed on the USS Jason Dunham.

"Nothing would make me prouder than to represent her and her family in victory lane at the Coca-Cola 600," Hamlin said.

A man on the deck of a ship wearing a firefighting suit adjusts the mask he’s wearing with gloved hands.
Shifting Gears
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin tries on firefighting gear aboard the USS San Jacinto at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., April 11, 2019.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 190411-D-DB155-003C

After flag swapping, it was off to the fantail — the outdoor back deck — for a firefighting demonstration. Hamlin put on the nearly 40 pounds of gear — mask, air tank and all — and it wasn't nearly as easy as his fireproof racing suit.

"To think that some of these guys go into burning buildings or up and down this ship with all that gear on, it's pretty amazing," Hamlin said. "It's just a testament to the athletic abilities they have."

He also got to spray the high-pressure water hose off the side of the ship.

"You've got to be a pretty strong guy," Hamlin admitted after trying it.

Two men in firefighter gear spray a fire hose off the deck of a ship as two men in the background take photos.
Firefighting Skills
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin learns firefighting skills aboard the USS San Jacinto at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., April 11, 2019. Hamlin visited the ship as part of his orientation ahead of the Coca-Cola 600 race in which he’ll represent the Navy.
Photo By: EJ Hersom, DOD
VIRIN: 190411-D-DB155-004C

He got to fire some missiles, too — during a simulation, of course. His last stop was a visit to the onboard ship simulator, which guides trainees through all sorts of scenarios, including heavily trafficked seas or a man-overboard situation.

"Looking at the radar and the tactical side of things — identifying the enemy, pointing your guns at them and firing — that part of it is just amazing to see all those people down there in communication," Hamlin said.

After that, No. 11 signed hats for the crew and headed out, but not before giving his 2 cents' worth on what the experience was like.

"There's so much work and effort that goes into defending our freedom," Hamlin said. "You can't thank the service members enough — them or their families."

Four other drivers visited military installations for similar orientation experiences. We'll have more details on each of their visits later this week. The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest on NASCAR's schedule and has been run since 1960.

Video by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Eric Melone, DOD