JOLIET, Ill. -- The armed forces have surrounded stock car racing, and their assault has come by air, ground and sea.
The U.S. military has found a great place to look for a few good men and women the grandstands of a NASCAR race. The Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Civil Air Patrol have concentrated their recruitment dollars in racing's traveling circus, each banking that horsepower and patriotism are a perfect mix.
The events of Sept. 11 made national security everyone's concern, and it has helped the military find a sweet spot in its recruiting effort. The armed forces sponsor cars on all three of NASCAR's top racing series and the National Hot Rod Association.
The bulk of a typical racing crowd easily fits into the military's 17- to 28-year-old target group, and every race from the Craftsman Truck, Busch and Winston Cup series is on television. Throw in a couple flybys with B-1 bombers, and several hundred Marines holding an Ameri can flag the size of a football field as part of a pre-race show, and it's an all-out assault.
''Racing is one of the biggest programs we've got going,'' said Maj. Rob Win chester, public affairs officer for the Marines. ''We've found, especially at the track, there's a real patriotic young male and female fan base that has a real interest in the armed forces. We've been getting two, three, four times' return on our investment.
''We have three missions. We make Marines; we win battles and return quality citizens to the community. We're in NASCAR to make Marines.''
The Air Force is an associate sponsor with Elliott Sadler's No. 21 Ford on the Winston Cup Series. It also sponsors Andy Kirby's part-time effort on the Busch Series.
The Navy has a stake in Jon Woods team on the Craftsman Truck Series. All four branches are represented on the race track.
The Marines are full-time sponsors for Bobby Hamilton Jr. on the Busch Series, and the Army lends it support to Brian Vickers during his limited Busch Series schedule.
Ashton Lewis has the support of the Civil Air Patrol on the Busch Series, and Jon Wood flies the Navy's colors on the Craftsman Truck Series.
''You look at our Marines car, and every body in the United States knows what that car's all about,'' Hamilton said. ''You've got so many sponsors nowadays where you don't really know who they are. When you see that emblem on our hood, you know exactly who it is and what it means.''
Years ago, it was difficult to get the military to provide a flyby before a race, said Marti Rompf, former public relations director at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Every pre-race show now includes a display of military might. So far, grandstands have been buzzed with B-1 and B-52 bombers, a C-5A transporter, stealth fighters and bombers and F-15 fighter jets.
Senior Master Sgt. Randy W. Fuller, the Air Force's superintendent of motorsports, not only works with Sadler and Kirby, but he also coordinates every flyby. The rumble and vapor trails have become a popular part of every pre-race ceremony, especially because the flybys are scheduled as a climatic end to The Star Spangled Banner.
Fuller said NASCAR helps the Air Force reach its goal of finding 30,000 new recruits each year.
''It can be a sensitive subject, but to keep the Air Force up and running for the taxpayer, you need, in the case of this year, over 30,000 people coming in,'' he said. ''People don't just walk in the door. We have to advertise and recruit. It's a minimum investment for us.''
With maximum exposure.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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