DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (NNS) -- Six Sailors assigned to the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship USS Wichita (LCS 13) were honored alongside 40 top NASCAR drivers at the Daytona 500 Feb.16.
The Sailors were among numerous service members attending through the Troops to the Track program, a season-long initiative that invites service members from across the country to attend racing events. They're given special access to the service pits, meet the drivers, and join in other special-access activities.
A fellow Sailor, Lt. Jesse Iwuji, took the Wichita Sailors on a personal tour of the garage area. Iwuji, a Class of 2010 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and athlete, has been racing in NASCAR since 2015. After seven years on active duty, Iwuji serves in the Navy Reserves as a surface warfare officer, the only current NASCAR driver to have served on active duty.
“It was an honor to give the tour to the sailors of USS Wichita at the Daytona 500 weekend,” Iwuji said. “It’s always great showing my fellow service members what goes into a race weekend in NASCAR, and giving them a one-of-a-kind behind the scenes tour that not many ever get to experience.”
During the pre-race meeting the Sailors showed their appreciation to Daytona Beach Navy League’s president and vice president of military affairs, for their coordination with Troops to the Track program and making it possible for them to be there.
They were also able to meet and take photos with celebrities such as Grammy winning musician Darius Rucker and honorary pace car driver, WWE superstar Shaemus.
Sailors also met with the recent Medal of Honor recipient, Staff Sgt. David Bellavia, awarded the Medal of Honor in 2019 for his acts of bravery while serving as a squad leader in support of Operation Phantom Fury in Fullujah, Iraq, on Nov. 10, 2004.
“It was a very humbling moment to shake the hand of Staff Sgt. Bellavia,” said Cmdr. Kevin O’Brien, USS Wichita’s commanding officer.
There were several dignitaries and service members, as well as newly sworn-in future airmen seated only 15-20 feet from the stage where President Trump, grand marshall for this year’s race, gave his pre-race speech.
“Soon the cars will take to the track for the start. Tires will screech. Rubber will burn. Fans will scream and the Great American Race will begin,” Trump said. With First Lady Melania Trump next to him, Trump recognized the Gold Star families attending, as well as those watching from their homes. He went on to pay special recognition to Bellavia, new enlistees, and attending service members for their sacrifices.
The final experience of the day was being able to head out to the track and meet some of the drivers next to their cars before closing the track area.
“One of my favorite things to do is to be able to meet and thank the men and women serving in the military when they come to see us race,” said Kurt Busch, winner of the 2017 Daytona 500. “It’s always one of the highlights of my day.”
Once the order was given to vacate the track, the Wichita Sailors all headed back to Pit Row, where they talked with the pit crews and saw how quickly and efficiently each team member did his or her part to get the car back on the track as fast as possible.
The Wichita Sailors noticed how many similarities there were to a NASCAR team and a ship’s crew in the Navy. Every team has the drive and motivation to meet the goal of finishing on top. Each member of the team has an important role, and it’s essential that each one knows how to support each other, their driver, and the goal.
LCS is a highly maneuverable, lethal and adaptable ship designed to provide focused support to anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, and surface warfare missions. LCS integrates new technology and capability to affordably support current and future mission capability from deep water to the littorals.
For more news from Commander Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 2, visit www.navy.mil/local/lcsron2/.