Air Force makes Indy 500 debut

  • Published
  • By Daniel P. Elkins
  • Air Force Recruiting Service
Race fans tuning into the Indianapolis 500 May 24 will see Luczo Dragon Racing's No. 2 car making its Indy debut in Air Force colors.

Behind the wheel will be rookie driver Rafael Matos who hopes to exploit his success as the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights champion into a win at what is deemed "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" before a viewing audience of millions and more than 300,000 race fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Matos was recognized by the American Dairy Association of Indiana May 20 with the Fastest Rookie Award. Matos posted the highest run of 223.492 on the second day of qualifying that bested four other rookie drivers who qualified for the race.

The partnership between Luczo Dragon Racing and the service features an Air Force-themed Indy car with emblems prominently displayed on the front and sides in seven races this season. The car is a patriotic gesture on behalf of the team, which donates more than $1 million of its charitable contributions to organizations supporting fallen heroes and their families. The Marine Corps also serves as a primary sponsor for the race team and will be featured in alternating races.

"We are showcasing the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps to help our services in their branding and recruitment at no charge to the services as a show of support of all active and retired military personnel," said Steve Luczo.

Luczo said he and co-owner Jay Penske wanted to honor the servicemen and woman. Luczo's ties to the military include his father who served in the Air Force and close friend retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford, who commanded space missions aboard Gemini and Apollo projects. Luczo and Penske approached the Air Force because of its high tech nature and the Marine Corps due to its advanced fighting capabilities. They instead seek paid sponsorship from corporations with a similar mindset.

"The Air Force jumped on the opportunity to promote the service and image when Luczo Dragon Racing offered to run an Air Force-themed Indy race car for free," said Jessica O'Haver, chief of trademark and licensing for the Air Force Public Affairs Agency in Arlington, Va. "I see a lot of requests for Air Force-themed products cross my desk each week such as hats, T-shirts and novelties; however, it's not every day I have the opportunity to license something as exciting as an Indy race car."

Public Affairs officials granted trademark and licensing authorization to the race team to place the Air Force symbol on the Indy car, team uniforms, pit equipment and other collateral marketing materials.

"The Air Force support (is) something extremely important to us," Matos said. "We're very honored to be carrying the Air Force logo on our car, and for me, I'd like to thank all of the servicemen and women for their effort in fighting for our safety and freedom."

The Air Force-themed car has already been featured in races this season at Long Beach, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo. Following the Indianapolis 500, additional dates include Aug. 1 at the Kentucky Speedway; Aug. 29 at the Chicagoland Speedway; Sept. 19 at the Twin Ring Montegi in Japan; and Oct. 10 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Air Force officials were quick to recognize the reciprocal benefit of such a partnership for its recruiting and retention efforts due to a worldwide audience of millions. During the second day of qualifications, the success of the team and rookie driver captured the media's attention with the seventh fastest time of the field to secure Matos the 12th starting position in row four of the May 24 race.

Having qualified, the race team continued to focus on its performance but also took time to support Air Force recruiters who were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for its annual Armed Forces Day display May 16 and 17. Matos spent an hour signing autographs for fans at the Air Force display and then took time to visit other military displays.

"This venue gives us a great opportunity to meet the public and let them know that their Air Force is here and hiring," said Lt. Col. Kent Dalton, commander for the 338th Recruiting Squadron headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. "It's a chance for us to boost awareness of Air Force opportunities."

The armed forces tribute at the track also included a ceremony May 17 with Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar administering the oath of enlistment to 57 young men and women entering the armed forces, including six joining the Air Force. The ceremony on the final day of qualifying included music by an Army National Guard band, presentation of the colors by a joint service color guard, and a flyover of F-16s from the Indiana Air Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing at Fort Wayne, Ind.

The May 24 race will also pay tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen and honor hundreds of military men and women.

Colonel Dalton said the qualities that draw race fans to a championship race car team and driver are the same qualities the Air Force seeks to join its team. That sentiment is shared by the Brazilian driver and race team.

"The Air Force pushes technology to the limits. (Airmen) have to be physically and well prepared, because it's a very demanding profession," said Matos, who began racing at age 10 in Brazil and has 19 professional wins to his credit. "It's the biggest similarity to racing."

Although in his first year of racing in the Indy Car Series, Matos has been racing in the United States for the past seven years. During a recent visit by his team to Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., team members clearly recognized the parallels between the service and racing when it comes to teamwork.

"You've got a group of people that all have different jobs, but yet they're all focused on the same end result. Everybody does their job, but they all have to work together as a team," said John Cummiskey, the Luczo Dragon Racing team manager.

In his 20 years of racing, team engineer Ray Leto has found that the disciplined and structured environment necessitating teamwork in the military can also apply to his race team.

"We have a good structure for the mechanics, engineers and the driver to work within, and sending a race car out on the track with a driver in it going 230 mph is a pretty serious endeavor," said Leto. "It's like prepping a plane and getting a pilot ready to go out on a mission. Anybody in that chain of events can make it fall apart ... similar to a flightline."

Leto said response to the Air Force car has been exciting.

"Everybody is enthused about seeing the Air Force emblem and loves the look of the car. There's been a great positive response, and it's amazing to see. I've been on race teams with lots of sponsors and corporate logos on (a car) before, but this car brings people out ... wanting to connect with the team.

"Having the opportunity to have the U.S. Air Force logo and really have something you're proud to wear is great for everybody on the team," he said.

Cummiskey agrees, "Everybody is proud of their country, and we're obviously proud of our military. While we treat all our corporate sponsors with respect, it's just a little different feeling."

That same enthusiasm is shared by the team in its expectations going into the May 24 race.

"We have to be there at the end since you never know what's going to happen," Cummiskey said. "Rafa and the team are quick enough to win this thing."

"We've proved that we can be fast, qualifying top 12," Matos said. "There are a lot of good teams out there, and we're certainly one of them. Hopefully by the end of the race we'll be in a good position to fight for the lead."