No apologies for patriotism at Dover NASCAR race

NASCAR driver and race winner Kyle Busch with his wife Samantha and son Brexton during the national anthem before the start of the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Judging from the wide array of American flags waving high atop so many recreational vehicles in the parking lots at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, NASCAR fans are obviously a group that bleeds red, white and blue.

Add in the fact that mammoth C-5 and C-17 cargo planes routinely soar in the skies above Dover International Speedway and race fans quickly know – this is a proud, patriotic military town.

Delaware Air Guard Sgt. James Gilbert hold a flag at Dover International Speedway.
Special to the Delaware State News / Chuck Snyder

Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, said the patriotic element when NASCAR visits the high-banked, one-mile oval twice a year is a natural when one adds all those ingredients together.

“We’ve been consistent for 49 years on our commitment to the military,” Mr. Tatoian said, regarding the racetrack. “The good news is it hasn’t at all changed and being as close as we are to Dover Air Force Base and as important as the airmen are, really to our operation, too, we just love honoring America and we’ve done it consistently for 49 years.”

With several NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem as a measure of civil disobedience in recent weeks, most NASCAR fans insist that just because one is patriotic, that does not make them racist.

Brad Keselowski, a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, made his own statement regarding the subject via Twitter last Tuesday.

“Please don’t believe that when we stand it’s out of disrespect to civil rights; it is and always will be out of respect and love for our (American flag),” Mr. Keselowski wrote on the social media site. “I plan to stand and sing the national anthem with my family as long as we are able, every chance possible. I hope you will too.

“So please don’t fall for the false narrative of choice between patriotism and racism. It’s simply not the case.”

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his final driving appearance at the “Monster Mile” on Sunday before he retires at the end of the season, said he would be standing during the national anthem, but tempered his remarks.

“Well, I have always stood for the anthem and I always will,” he said. “But, I am not quick to rush to judgement to somebody that will and wants to do something different.”

At Dover, the celebration of country shined through, and before the running of the Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil Monster Energy Series race at Dover on Sunday, patriotism was on display in many forms.

In fact, several Delaware National Guard and Air Force enlistees took their Oath of Enlistment on the track during star spangled-flavored pre-race ceremonies.

The United States Air Force Heritage Band performed a Military Salute medley before three parachutists landed at various areas on the track.

Introductions were given to VIP’s Maj. General Ed Wilson of the U.S. Air Force and Brigadier General Mike Berry of the Delaware Army National Guard.

Just before the roar of the engines filled the air, the U.S. Air Force Heritage Brass performed God Bless America as the American flag was raised on a crane high above the track’s infield.

Then it was time for Chief John Young of the 166th Airlift Wing in New Castle’s favorite part – the flag presentation and the playing of the National Anthem by the USO Show Troupe as a C-17 Globemaster from the 3rd Airlift Squadron of Dover Air Force base buzzed the grandstands at the racetrack.

Chief Young has supervised the flag presentations on pit road for the past 15 years.

“I love it because as we’re sitting here (on pit road) the people are coming by shaking our hands and all that kinds of stuff and it’s great,” Chief Young said. “NASCAR fans have always been really good to the military.

“We hold the flags (during the national anthem) and as we’re holding the flags, you can just feel it.

“Everybody standing next to you, side-by-side, it’s just an awesome feeling. NASCAR’s always treated us great.”

Nearly everywhere one looked on Sunday at Dover, a sense of patriotism could be seen.

The USAF Heritage Band performs a Military Salute Medley on the track before the start of the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Clarence Hartley, of Conway, South Carolina, was wearing a U.S. Navy T-shirt with a Vietnam Veteran hat as he rolled through the pits in his wheelchair.

“NASCAR’s better than football,” Mr. Hartley said. “Patriotism in the number one reason I like NASCAR.”

Meanwhile, Bill Thames of Chatsworth, New Jersey, was strolling past the vendors outside the grandstands wearing a T-shirt that was basically all American flag.

To him, Dover is a perfect fit to celebrate the country.

Anthony Visalli with the Army National Guard from Georgetown holds an American flag at the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

He remembered being at the race after 9/11 in 2001 when Dover hosted the biggest event in the nation on Sept. 23 following the attacks. It still gives him chills.

“This was the biggest sporting event after 9/11 and it was amazing how many American flags were being shown and all that,” Mr. Thames said. “I’m a very patriotic person and I believe NASCAR is, too.

“You’d better believe that everybody in the stands is going to be standing up during the anthem and we’re going to do our thing to show patriotism for our country.”

Mr. Tatoian admits that he also thinks back to that day in the fall of 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled off a victory at Dover and celebrated by hoisting an American flag out of his driver’s side window as he circled the race track and the fans chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

“When Dale Jr. won that race he helped heal an entire nation, because we were the largest event to take place after 9/11,” Mr. Tatoian said. “That punctuated our commitment. I think that day was our greatest day at the track.”

It definitely left an indelible impression on a military town that continues to this day.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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