Weather fails to dampen Air Force-NASCAR relationship at Pocono

  • Published
  • By Dale Eckroth
  • Headquarters Air Force Recruiting Service
The Air Force and NASCAR have long enjoyed a proud relationship that continues to grow with each race. That relationship was very much in evidence at the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of race fans flooded the track grounds Aug. 1 to watch their favorite drivers complete practice runs leading up to the Pennsylvania 500 race. However, it was rain that flooded the track Aug. 2, forcing officials to postpone the race until the following day.

In between heavy down pours, light showers and peaks of sun, those who braved the elements on the original scheduled race day were treated to military pomp and circumstance at its finest.

Overseeing the pre-race "Salute to the Armed Forces" festivities was Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who also was the race grand marshal.

Approximately 100 young men and women destined for the Air Force, Army, Navy or Marines gathered in front of the winner's circle to raise their right hand as General Schwartz administered their oath of enlistment into the delayed entry program. Applause and cheers erupted in the stands as they accepted the call into their respective service.

Fans also cheered during the drivers' introduction as Reed Sorenson, driver of the Air Force-sponsored No. 43 car, shook hands with General Schwartz and the other military and civilian dignitaries including Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of the Air Force Space Command.

The Pennsylvania 500 was the fifth and final race of the season featuring the car with the Air Force paint scheme. Mr. Sorenson finished the race in 35th position. The Air Force also is an associate sponsor for the Richard Petty Motorsports team in 33 other NASCAR races.

"The Pocono Raceway is one of the most military-friendly tracks in the country," said Tech. Sgt. Rick Jones, noncommissioned officer in charge of the Air Force Recruiting Service NASCAR program. "There's a patriotic atmosphere for the men and women in uniform. Also, track officials go all out to ensure the Air Force is showcased through media, onsite recruiting booths and a variety of awareness activities including the delayed entry program ceremony."

In addition to numerous military displays and presentations, other pre-race activities included a KC-135 flyover provided by Airmen from the 97th Air Mobility Wing at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., and music by the Air National Guard's Band of the Mid-Atlantic.

After parading the last NASCAR driver down the straightaway in front of the grandstands, military humvees returned with servicemembers waving American flags and displaying the 50 state flags. As they drove past the stands, the crowds gave an enthusiastic standing ovation.
The Pocono Raceway's relationship with the military began in 1984, and since then, recognizing all branches of the armed forces has become an annual part of the racing event.

"We feel the men and women who volunteer to serve our country and keep us free and safe deserve all the recognition we can possibly give them," said Mr. Bob Pallo, who was the assistant general manager of the track back then and is now track vice president.

In front of thousand of race fans, Lt. Col. Kevin O'Meara, 314th Recruiting Squadron commander, returned the honor by presenting Mr. Pallo with the Air Force Recruiting Salutes plaque. The recognition was given to him for his outstanding support and dedication to the Air Force recruiting mission.

"In the eyes of the fans, the pre-race 'Salute to the Armed Services' for the Pocono 500 held in June and the Pennsylvania 500 held in August are as much a (show of) military appreciation as they are NASCAR motor sports events," Mr. Pallo said. "The fan appreciation is unbelievable when it comes to recognizing the military."

According to Sergeant Jones, NASCAR has become a great tool for Air Force recruiting and awareness. "We're putting recruits in the Air Force as a direct result of each race. Our return on investment is our future Airmen," he said.

As the NASCAR program NCOIC, Sergeant Jones ensures local recruiters have marketing visibility at each track for recruiting and Air Force awareness events. He pointed out that research provided by GSD&M Idea City, the Air Force's contracted advertising agency, shows NASCAR is the most viewed sporting event in the nation.

According to the track officials, with 60 million people living within a 200-mile radius, the Pocono Raceway has the highest population density of any NASCAR Sprint Cup track. Located in northeastern Pennsylvania, it is approximately 90 miles from New York City and Philadelphia, which are the No. 1 and 4 TV markets in the nation.

"We don't feel we are doing or can ever do enough for the fine men and women who serve in our military," added Mr. Pallo. "We're always looking at new and better ways to educate the public and to do more to honor our service men and women."

Judging by the outpouring of support from racing fans and Pocono Raceway officials, the Air Force-NASCAR relationship will indeed continue to grow for years to come, no matter how bad the weather becomes.

"All I can say is, God bless them all for volunteering to serve our country," Mr. Pallo said.