Virtual race brings real emotion: Dover Korean War veteran goes to victory lane at Monster Mile

DOVER — The grandstands at Dover International Speedway were like a second home to Korean War Veteran Walter “Wally” Yocum Jr., his wife Rose, and their four sons when NASCAR came to town.

Anthony Alfredo drove a car honoring Korean War hero and long-time Dover Air Force Base aircraft engine mechanic Wally Yocum to victory lane in a virtual race that “took place” at Dover International Speedway on May 2. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

So, it’s easy to imagine the elation the brothers felt when a race car driven by Anthony Alfredo that was honoring their late father took the checkered flag — virtually — in an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Saturday Night Thunder race on the simulated high banks of the track known as the “Monster Mile” on May 2.

In the age of sheltering at home during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Yocum brothers Eric, Ken and Tim stayed glued to their computer screens and remained in touch throughout the race. Another brother, Steve, passed away in 1992 due to cancer.

Their eyes remained laser-focused on the race car that was designed to resemble a historic jet airplane that Wally Yocum had served on as a crew chief in the Korean War.

“Ken, Tom and I all watched the race from our homes,” Eric Yocum said. “Ken and I are in Delaware (and) Tom lives in North Carolina. The creation of the virtual racing was based from the current COVID-19 situation, so we social distanced and enjoyed the entertainment. We would have loved to (have) been at the track for real to see it in person.

“But we texted one another at different stages of the race and we were all excited by the conclusion of the race. Our texts ranged from ‘YES!”, ‘That’s for Wally!’ and a ‘Making my way down to victory lane now’ joke from my brother.”

Alfredo was “driving” the No. 33 Tribute to a Hero Wally Yocum Chevrolet for the legendary Richard Childress Racing (RCR) team. It was fitting, since Wally Yocum’s favorite driver when watching NASCAR on Dover’s one-mile oval had always been Harry Gant, who also drove a race car with the No. 33 on its sides.

The virtual victory by Alfredo was a longshot considering he had just one real-world start at Dover International Speedway in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Series. Plus, the race marked a new chapter for RCR at Dover as it was the organization’s first attempt at the track in a virtual race.

It wasn’t easy, but Alfredo outdueled Alex Labbe, overtaking him with seven laps remaining, before driving the Wally Yocum tribute car to victory lane — after a few celebratory burnouts on the front straightaway of the “Monster Mile,” of course.

“We did it. Let’s go! We won,” Alfredo exclaimed after taking his first checkered flag in a virtual race that included drivers from NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, Truck Series, ARCA Menards Series, NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series and NASCAR’s Whelen Euro Series. “I am so pumped. It means a lot to me just because I put in a lot of work in every single one of these races. We have run up front in all of them and had a shot at them, which is all I can ask for. Well, Dover was our place and it feels good to win.”

Alfredo, a 21-year-old driver from Ridgefield, Connecticut, admitted there was a little extra pressure with Wally Yocum’s name on the hood of his race car.

After all, Yocum served as a crew chief for the world famous 336th Rocketeers during the Korean War before leaving the Air Force on Aug. 3, 1956, at the rank of Airman First Class. He went on to work civil service at Dover Air Force Base, where he maintained fighter aircraft and eventually one of the largest military planes in the world, the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy as part of the 436th Field Maintenance Squadron. In all, he maintained Air Force aircraft engines for 38 years before finally retiring in 1990.

In the process, Alfredo brought many fond family memories storming back into the Yocum family’s collective consciousness.

“Our whole family were NASCAR fans,” said Eric Yocum. “My family started going to the races when Dover started (in 1969). I was the fourth of the four boys, and remembered my family always having reserved seats near the start/finish line. It was always a time our family got together to catch and enjoy time together.

“Our mother and father are now both deceased, but they would have loved to have seen it.”

A hero with a gift for engines

Wally Yocum, who died in 2016, was a master when it came to the development and maintenance of aircraft engines.

He was assigned as the crew chief of the F-86F FU-539 Sabre in 1954-early ’55 during the Korean War.

Yocum, who started dating Rose after attending Mount Carmel Township High School in Pennsylvania, quickly added his sweetheart’s name as the nose art for his side of the jet — “Sweet Rose.” He eventually married her the year he returned to the United States, on Nov. 5, 1955, in Pennsylvania.

His pilot, Lt. Ken Ewing, had “Dreaded Gomboo” painted on the nose on his side of the aircraft. The name signified an infectious disease.

Wally Yocum stands in front of the jet fighter that he served as crew chief for in the Korean War. His side of the plane was dedicated to “Sweet Rose,” whom he eventually married when he returned home to the United States. Submitted photos

Yocum’s Korean experiences found him near the famous 38th parallel in war torn Korea, stationed at Kimpo AFB near Seoul, known as K-14. He was part of the 4th Fighter Wing and was one of many individuals who put their lives on the line every day in a foreign country in the name of freedom as a crew chief for the 336th Rocketeers.

Even though there was a cessation of hostilities in mid-1953, leaders of the 336th Fighter Interceptor Squadron geared the unit to a new mission — preserve the combat-born fighting skill. Led by Lt. Col. Edward Weed, the Rocketeers were honed to a razor’s edge of combat capability, ready to meet the threat of aggression at the flash of a radar blip.

It was Yocum’s job to maintain and continuously monitor an F86-F fighter-interceptor Sabre jet that was piloted by Lt. Ewing, giving him the most thrust and fuel economy to safely engage an enemy for any conflict. When Yocum wasn’t checking tolerances on the jet, he had to perform guard duty at Kimpo AFB.

Wally and Rose Yocum attend a NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway, one of the favorite places that the Yocum family used to get together.

“The Army Sergeant told him to put the bayonet on his gun for guard duty because you only have 90 rounds, (and) that when the Chinese come, they come 10,000 at a time,” Eric Yocum said.

Yocum went on to receive four service medals during the Korean War and two posthumously, including the National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Republic of Korea Service Medal and the Republic of Korea Ambassador for Peace Medal.

Eric Yocum and his brothers still remember some of the war stories their father used to tell.

“He described his experiences at Kimpo as some of the most memorable experiences in his life,” said Eric Yocum. “His Sabre patrolled the skies for enemy MiG’s. Even though an armistice was signed, the unpublished skirmishes continued to happen. (My dad) remembers that each mission was decided early in the day based on whether the navigational landmark mountain near the base was visible or covered in clouds. Clear days and the mission was on.”

Eric said the Sabre his father worked on was a F-86F-30-NA that was equipped with a new 6-3 wing that allowed speeds to increase to 695-plus mph at low altitudes. The plane could match the speed of the MiG and climb to altitudes of 47,000 feet.

Veteran Wally Yocum visits the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. He served as an aircraft engine mechanic for the United States Air Force for 38 years.

“(My father) got to go into Seoul with the Army,” he said. “The city was destroyed and he rode in the back of an Army truck. He said they stopped in the road by a blown-up building. At this building, there was only a foundation wall left. He noticed huddled in a corner was a woman and children and they were freezing. He said he grabbed some blankets and threw them to the woman.

“He also told the story of the night sky being lit up orange and red and thought it was a big storm. He said he couldn’t hear anything but was told by the Army Sergeant that the Navy was well off the coast and was shelling the trail to keep the enemy back. The Sergeant said he was (stupid for) thinking it was a storm and he took dad’s gun and pierced the sand bags making up the wall around the Sabre. The Sergeant then told him to fix it! He said the shelling ‘was a hell of a night there in Kimpo.’”

Things were much calmer when he arrived at Dover Air Force Base in 1955, working on aircraft engines for the civil service. He and Rose raised all four of their sons in Dover.

“My father enjoyed Dover, but he was a traveler,” Eric Yocum said. “He loved going on vacations every year. My mom always joked ‘that man loves to drive!’ They enjoyed Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) the most.”

Another milestone in the works

The families of Wally Yocum and Lt. Ewing recently raised $20,000 to have a F86-F fighter-interceptor Sabre jet designed to match the “Sweet Rose/Dreaded Gomboo” at The Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California.

Wally and Rose Yocum celebrating their 50th anniversary with their family.

Work began on restoring the historic aircraft on April 9 to prepare it for paint. The mount on the bottom of the airplane is being worked on and the pole itself from which it will “fly” is still being manufactured.

A dedication date remains in limbo as the museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus.

While they wait on that next honor to take place, they still look back last weekend to a virtual race car with their father’s name on it winning at Dover, a racetrack that he loved. It might have been a virtual race, but it left them with a very real feeling.

“It was amazing and an honor that our father was represented at Dover, and that car won!,” Eric Yocum said. “As you can tell, our father was really special to our family. This year, everything has just been clicking.”