NASCAR driver Sam Hornish Jr. remembers Memorial Day weekend 10 years ago with a certain shudder.
An Indy car racer at the time, that was the weekend he crashed out, scrapping a promising lead at the Indianapolis 500 that very likely cost him the win.
Within a few hours of that crash, and a world away, Air Force combat controller Jeremy J. Fresques had just gotten promoted to captain when he boarded a surveillance aircraft to scout emergency landing zones in Iraq.
His actual promotion ceremony could wait — there was work do. But the special operations airman never made it back. His aircraft crashed and burned, killing all aboard.
"It puts a lot of things in perspective," Hornish told Military Times. "I remember that day pretty well. I was feeling pretty bummed out because we had a great opportunity to win that year. But it just goes to show, we're basically just out there entertaining. He was out there serving other people, serving all of us really."
Indeed, all 43 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will participate in what officials have dubbed "600 Miles of Remembrance" this Memorial Day Weekend to honor military service members and their families.
"In a lot of ways, we get more attention than we should, so this is a great way to redirect some of that attention," Hornish said during a break in pre-race preparations. His No. 9 Ford Fusion will feature Fresques' name across the windshield.
"It's an honor. I hope it makes people a little more appreciative of what Memorial Day is really supposed to be all about. It's not just another day off of work."
The race will launch NASCAR's "An American Salute" summer program for troops, veterans and their families, which includes a series of special events running through Independence Day celebrations. The salute will feature various on- and off-track activities by local track organizers, teams and partners that show appreciation and support for the military community, culminating at the Coke Zero 400 race at Daytona International Speedway the July 4 weekend.
"The NASCAR community rallying to honor the U.S. Armed Forces, past and present, has long been part of our sport's heritage," said Brent Dewar, Chief Operating Officer, NASCAR. "600 Miles of Remembrance represents a special moment in time as we pay tribute to service members who have sacrificed dearly for our freedom."
Fans can follow stories around the seven-week program and share their personal expressions of thanks to the military using #NASCARSalutes on social media.
The kick it all off, Charlotte Motor Speedway will host more than 6,000 active military members at the Coca-Cola 600 in honor of Memorial Day.
Among the military appreciation programming slated in the coming weeks:
- Welcome home center: During Daytona International Speedway's Coke Zero 400, all active-duty service members, veterans and their families can enjoy the Troops Welcome Center. The center, which will be located in the midway, will be fully equipped with food and beverages, allowing service members to take a break and meet NASCAR drivers throughout the weekend.
- Special tires. Goodyear will transform its NASCAR race tires, replacing its "Eagle" sidewall design with "Support Our Troops" messaging on all tires used during Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The company is also launching a charity auction at Goodyear.com/GivesBack, which features autographed NASCAR memorabilia, VIP race experiences and rides on the Goodyear Blimp.
- Vegas sweepstakes. Now through July 8, Commissary shoppers can enter the 2015 Champions Week Sweepstakes for a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion's Week by texting "NASCARSALUTE" to 313131 or by visiting www.championsweek2015.com.
Meanwhile, on May 24, NASCAR drivers will discuss 600 Miles of Remembrance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (channel 90) during a special military tribute show airing at 1 p.m. Eastern. The "Dialed In Salute to the Troops" special will feature interviews with several drivers as well as service men and service women from different branches of the military.
During the Coca Cola 600 pre-race broadcast starting 5:30 p.m. Eastern today Fox Sports will recognize all service members who have lost their lives in the past year by displaying their names and branches of service on a graphic scroll.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Coca-Cola 600 will be broadcast live from Charlotte Motor Speedwaystartingat 6 p.m. Eastern on Fox, PRN and SiriusXM Radio. Additional live coverage can be found on NASCAR.com.
Many of the service members whose names will be displayed on the race cars were chosen by the teams, and some teams have unique connections to the fallen, NASCAR officials say.
Pvt. Dean Van Dyke, who was killed in the Vietnam War, for example, was a relative of No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle. Army 1st Lt. Daniel Hyde, killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, served alongside Chris Clayton, tire changer on the No. 83 BK Racing team.
In many cases, families of the fallen service members being recognized will be in attendance today and will be introduced alongside the drivers during driver introductions.
"If I had to put the name of another driver on there, I'd feel pretty weird about that, but this is an honor," Hornish said. "I just hope we have a good run and do the family proud."