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.
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."
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.
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.
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