Goodman Shaffer: NASCAR salutes military before Memorial Day

We all know that Memorial Day weekend should be about more than picnics and parties. It is an important time to remember the men and women who have served our nation’s armed forces, and particularly those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our freedom.

This holiday, which also marks the unofficial start of summer, is celebrated in many different ways in many different sports arenas, but stock car racing is particularly proud of its long-standing ties to the U.S. military.

In fact, NASCAR president Mike Helton has defined the sport’s respect for those who serve “part of our DNA.”

So it’s no surprise that one of Sprint Cup racing’s biggest events of the year takes place on Memorial Day weekend.

As much as last week’s all-star race celebrated NASCAR’S most successful and popular drivers, with smoke-and-fireworks introductions and a team promenade to the starting line-up, this weekend’s pre-race festivities honored those who wear a different kind of uniform: those of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Special red, white and blue paint schemes decorated many of the cars, along with stars and stripes, saluting soldiers and battleship silhouettes. Even Dale Earnhardt Junior’s ride, which touts the National Guard all year long, sported a special camouflage design.

Military fly-overs and patriotic concerts added to the pageantry of the Coca-Cola 600, along with the somber playing of “Taps” and video images of Arlington National Cemetery prior to the traditional National Anthem.

NASCAR’s commitment to celebrating the armed forces does not end with the Memorial Day weekend event. Throughout the summer, the sport will continue to honor the military with a social media campaign called #NASCARSalutes. Fans are encouraged to tweet their respect or post pictures showing their gratitude; the goal is to surpass one million signs of appreciation between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Goodyear sent a pair of race tires to war zones to collect signatures of active military personnel that were then paired with NASCAR drivers to signify the connection between the sport and the armed forces.

A new team, America’s Veterans Racing, hoping to become a contender in the Truck series, is committed to honoring military service by helping veterans make the transition to civilian life. To that end, AVR proudly fields two crews made up of veterans whose military service spans from Vietnam to Afghanistan for drivers Candace Munzy and Nick Joanides.

Perhaps it’s NASCAR’s rural roots that give the sport its special connection to the military, as small-town America is a backbone of recruitment for the armed forces.

Or perhaps it’s geography: stock car racing’s home state of North Carolina is also home to bases for four of the five branches of the military.

Or maybe it’s simple, undeniable patriotism, embracing American traditions like apple pie and Chevrolet (and Ford, and Dodge) NASCAR heralds loyalty and courage, characteristics found in abundance among our military, and worthy of the sport’s and the nation’s salute.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.