Fort Hood tragedy looms large at TMS
FORT WORTH, Texas -- When practice ended Friday afternoon, a large U.S. Army logo was painted on the frontstretch grass at Texas Motor Speedway.
The logo included a message: "God Bless Our Fort Hood Troops."
This weekend is a somber time at TMS.
NASCAR is racing only 130 miles up I-35 from the site of the tragedy at Fort Hood, where 13 people were killed and 31 others injured Friday in a senseless shooting rampage.
TMS president Eddie Gossage decided to add the logo to honor the fallen soldiers. TMS employees are wearing black armbands the rest of the weekend. A moment of silence will be observed before the start of each race.
No sport is more closely tied to the military than NASCAR. Soldiers are almost as much a part of race weekends as engines and tires.
It's a sad weekend for all Americans, but for NASCAR, it's almost like losing part of its family.
"NASCAR fans bleed red, white and blue," Gossage said. "I can tell you that the demographics of our fans are very pro-military."
NASCAR officials knew this long ago. Back in 2000, when NASCAR was realigning in major markets where new tracks like TMS were built, Bill France Jr. was asked whom he considered his fan base.
"Our fans are the people who go out and win wars for this country," France said.
The heart of NASCAR's fan base is grassroots America. Patriotism is a common theme at Sprint Cup events. Many people sitting in the stands have sons or daughters, brothers or sisters serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Without a doubt, Sunday's crowd will include people with friends or family members stationed at Fort Hood. And probably a few people in the grandstands will know someone who is suffering because of Friday's tragedy.
"The military always has had a close association with this sport," Gossage said. "For example, we always make a point to have military personnel as part of our events. We'll have an Air Force general here this weekend."
Men and women in uniform often walk through the pits and the garage. High-ranking officers sometimes attend the Sunday morning driver meetings. Some races have included induction ceremonies before the national anthem, which usually includes a military flyover.
Many fans associate the military involvement through its sponsorship of race teams. The Army is a longtime Cup sponsor that moved to Stewart-Haas Racing this year and the No. 39 Chevrolet driven by Ryan Newman.
"It's a difficult time," Newman said Friday. "All those Army families are going through so much. We have to race on Sunday, but in the big picture, we'll be thinking about everybody down at Fort Hood."
Stewart, who also has become closer to military personnel this year through the sponsorship association, spoke about the tragedy.
"Obviously, that's something nobody would have dreamed could happen, but it did," Stewart said. "You just think about all the families and wish them the best."
Stewart attended the U.S. Nationals NHRA event in September to support Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, who also is sponsored by the Army. Stewart was wearing the Army team shirt while cheering on Schumacher.
Many NASCAR drivers feel a close association with the soldiers. Some of it came through sponsorship.
I don't think a lot of other sports have the same relationship with the armed services that NASCAR has. They identify with us, and NASCAR fans certainly identify with them.” -- Eddie Gossage
Nemechek's mother, Martha, often attended races wearing Army fatigues, with her son's No. 1 on her back, when the Army was his sponsor.
The National Guard sponsors the cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports. The Air Force is an associate sponsor for the historic No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers team. The Navy previously was a primary sponsor in the Nationwide Series.
But maybe it goes deeper than just sponsorship. There is a kinship between race car drivers and soldiers.
Drivers risk their lives doing what they love. Soldiers risk their lives protecting the country they love.
"This year [with the Army sponsorship] has been a very special learning experience for me," Newman said. "I kind of took for granted some of the things the armed forces have done for us and are doing for us. "So this year has been an eye-opening experience, meeting different generals and colonels and soldiers. It's been special."
Newman has visited several Army bases this season, but he has not gone to Fort Hood.
"But personnel-wise, I know people that know people that were involved," Newman said. "I don't know anybody directly involved.
"I view it as an unfortunate part of life. Whether it's in the U.S. Army or in a convenience store, it's a part of life today. It's happened before; it will happen again."
It did, one day later. Two people were killed and six others wounded in a shooting Friday at an Orlando office building.
But Thursday's horrific moment, just down the road from this speedway, touched the hearts for many in the NASCAR community.
"I don't think a lot of other sports have the same relationship with the armed services that NASCAR has," Gossage said. "They identify with us, and NASCAR fans certainly identify with them."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.