2018 is the first year of the reduction of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series action at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS) from two races to one. And since NHMS is the only Cup host in New England, the weekend of July 20-22 provided the only opportunity this year for regional racing fans to see some of their favorites.
That, in turn, provided the perfect opportunity for the American Legion Department of New Hampshire to officially kick off its observance of the organization’s 100th anniversary, through a presence at the Loudon track that included PA announcements worked up by Department Historian George Boddie; discounted tickets for Legion Family members; a special recognition on Sunday, during the top-level Cup race; and presentation of the colors on Friday, before the start of the Whelen Modified Tour race.
The department’s main goal for the weekend was visibility, and NHMS provided a sympathetic audience. NASCAR is famously enthusiastic about its support for the military. Service-branch hats and shirts were a common sight among fans. The VA New England Healthcare System had its own booth, giving away “Veteran” freebies and helping veterans get connected to their benefits. VISN Outreach Program Manager Michael McNamara has been coming to the track since 2010; he said his people try to be at every major event in New England, from air shows to gun shows, to capture veterans’ attention: “wherever they are, we are.” The track is a prime example of going where the action is, as “NASCAR’s always been very, very supportive of veterans.”
Mike Lopez has been chair of the Department of New Hampshire’s centennial committee for two years. He said that when it comes to the department and the centennial, “Our goal is to do everything we can to shine a light on The American Legion, nationally and in New Hampshire.” The NHMS weekend was originally the idea of Legionnaire – and state representative – Mike Moffett, who has connections at the track. “For 100,000 people to recognize the Legion – that’s big,” Lopez added.
The department convention in June featured a “test run” event, a free BBQ. Future plans include the placing of historical plaques at Weirs Beach and in the Manchester hotel where early events were held, and a golf tournament in September. Sales of a coin, and a gun raffle that raised $12,000, have provided money for centennial events without going to the department. Lopez wants the overall takeaway from these activities to be that the Legion is more than just a social organization, but “doers in the community,” which should encourage those eligible to talk to a Legion member and be part of it.
The guard that presented the colors was that of department champion Whiteman-Davidson Post 49 in Northfield. Dating back to 1946 and a five-time national Legion champion, some of the members who went to NHMS are the sons of previous members. As track employees wound them through the interior paths toward the track on motorized vehicles, they passed the legendary Richard Petty coming the other way on another vehicle (he received The American Legion’s Good Guy Award during the 2015 national convention in the NASCAR home base of Charlotte).
Roy Cilley has been a member for 20 years, and said of guard activities, “It feels pretty good when you’re marching, with everyone cheering.” Wes Nicholson, a member for eight years, cited the “camaraderie” that comes from handling the colors. Joe Newton, a member for 28 years, feels “the satisfaction of being able to do it for the veterans who can’t.” He added of the special relationship between NASCAR and those who have served, “the veterans appreciate the drivers for what they do, and the drivers appreciate veterans for what they have done.”
John Chase, a member for 21 years, is a race fan. For him, the position of “favorite driver” has traveled from Dale Jarrett to Dale Earnhardt Jr. (both of whom are now retired) to Jimmie Johnson. Presenting the colors is about “remembering the days gone by, being in the military” for him, and “pride and patriotism” for observers. He cited the race body for not involving politics in their activities, pre-race or otherwise – “NASCAR doesn’t allow that.” As for the centennial kickoff: “for the 100th anniversary, I think it’s an honor and a privilege to be asked to present the colors.”