Race Weekend Central

From Tragedy To Triumph? Everyone Wins With A Moving NASCAR Newtown Tribute

When it comes to Valentine’s Day, I’m conflicted. Like many typical males, there’s a part of me that thinks the whole holiday is silly. If it’s the only day you ever feel compelled to get your lover flowers, should you really be with them? Shouldn’t the ways in which we all come together, for one moment in time to remind people how much we care, be something we do consistently, all 365 days a year? Believe it or not, I have many of the same feelings when it comes to something so mundane as NASCAR Media Day. In the past four weeks, we’ve had Daytona testing, the Media Tour, Acceleration Weekend and countless press conferences and public announcements. The diehard fan has been following every move; the casual one won’t pay attention to anything until Saturday night. Why, in this day and age of 24/7 social media do we need this over-the-top event down in Daytona to remind ourselves of stories that, by and large, have not changed since the last time they were reported?

But Thursday, in the midst of the monotony of the same old interviews and stories, in an instant NASCAR and Michael Waltrip of all people served to renew my faith in both.

I grew up in Connecticut, 35 minutes from the quaint little suburb of Newtown where December 14th, 2012, lives were lost and innocence shattered. Within the seemingly safe environment of an elementary school, savage gunshots came raining down with no rhyme or reason to report. Children hid, adults cowered, and for a few, sickening moments the type of violence we wouldn’t dream about in hell was unleashed, center stage in the worst way. 20 didn’t survive the carnage, along with six adults; for the rest, a community left in mourning those shattered dreams paired with a lifelong loss of innocence we can’t repair.

Sandy Hook’s Recovery Fund is hoping plenty of NASCAR fans will be willing to donate by following the directions above.

Like most people with roots in the state, where most of my family and many friends still live, the attack felt personal. My connections were indirect, at best but close enough to send chills. A best friend had a coworker whose child went to the school; a phone call had him running, dropping the project midstream in a sense of panic (his family was one of the lucky ones). A family member of mine, who will remain nameless here dealt directly with the father of the killer several years ago on a work project. Casual conversations then, concern over a son with issues became all too chilling to remember now.

Like many in the state, everyone in my circle has been active in trying to find different ways to help. But right now, two months removed from the trauma the people involved still need time. For weeks, every survivor couldn’t walk out the door without being bombarded by a well-wisher, a reporter looking to hear a story beginning to end. It’s like being at a loved one’s funeral… only it never ends. You wake up each morning, thinking it’s over and you have time to grieve except you go through the same song and dance again. I have a friend who’s going to be influential in helping with the Newtown memorial. I asked her the other day what they needed, if anything and her answer was simple: “To be left alone.” Healing, from any type of tragedy is as much private as it is public.

But as the world keeps going ‘round, so will Newtown and there will be needs that have to be met. Everything from psychological counseling to the future safety of these children will be in question; money can always be used, for any purpose even if it’s as simple as going to a program that will work, day and night to ensure this type of violence never happens again. We may all be on different sides of the issues that remain, from wielding guns to watching them burn but we’re all seeking the same ultimate goal: senseless killing has to stop.

For the last few weeks, Newtown has finally gotten their wish as the public, well, everything over what happened has died down slowly. Yes, Sandy Hook’s chorus sang at the Super Bowl but the requests for media involvement are slowly calming down. The kids are back at school, albeit one down the road and people can go out and have dinner, go grocery shopping, and conduct other normal life activities without fear of being interrupted. But as next steps are considered, plans developed the need for funding becomes more apparent. Enter NASCAR, who visited the Sandy Hook area last week and was looking to help in a different way, giving a few families with loved ones lost by the tragedy a personal tour of Daytona during the 500.

Michael Waltrip is joined by Swan Racing owner Brandon Davis (L) and Sandy Hook Fire Chief Bill Halstead at the unveiling of the tribute car he will pilot in the Daytona 500.

Instead, a bigger idea was spawned: produce a tribute car for the big race where all monies would go towards a foundation designed to help Newtown heal. Swan Racing, looking to get a foothold on full-time competition, jumped at the chance to lead such a project; sponsor-shilling driver Michael Waltrip, running the relabeled No. 26 in a one-race deal, was the perfect spokesperson. (For once, a honeymoon pairing for the sport’s one driver in the garage who will never shut up: this time, all involved _need him_ to keep talking.) A deal was struck, a paint scheme made, and on this day of love the power of its partnership was unveiled.

“Personally, it was one of the hardest things and best things I’ve ever done,” NASCAR CEO Brian France said of the project, which hopes to raise millions for the cause. “Being in Newtown last week and delivering a moment of happiness to that community was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Looking out at a room of smiling faces amidst the aftermath of a horrible tragedy was very powerful.”

In this initiative, there are a number of ways in which NASCAR has a clear advantage. Names on a car, going round for three hours with 20 million people watching lasts longer in your memory than a five-second tribute by, say the NFL’s J.J. Watt. If Waltrip is in contention – and considering he nearly won last Fall at Talladega, that’s a very likely “yes” – the car will be front and center, promoting the need to heal on television for an extended period of time. The number of donations raised could far outpace a simple gesture of a football player putting the name “Newtown” on a sneaker, however touching its intent. Nothing matches the corporate era of NASCAR when it maximizes their power for a cause, especially on the eve of its Super Bowl. And did I mention, in the process they created a meaningful story from Media Day? Now, when fans ask what was new there’s a clear, upbeat office coffee break story to share that not only gets people talking but has the added bonus of maximizing the publicity of the sport pre-Daytona 500. Win, win, win… how long has it been since everyone with at least a tangential interest in cars going in circles said that three times?

Of course, that’s not what this project is all about. Even holding the Harley J. Earl trophy pales in comparison to the positives this project can produce.

“It will be an emotional week knowing that we have the potential to do so much good for the Newtown community,” Waltrip said. “I’m racing for a reason.”

In recent years, there are some times you look at what this sanctioning body does, whether a journalist, a pit crew member or a fan and you sit there scratching your head. But on a day celebrating love, where we all come together in peace over whom we care about the most this day was not one of them.

Instead, it was one to remember, reflect, and celebrate, a reminder of the power NASCAR still presents in this world when it comes together for the common good.

_”Love puts the fun in together, the sad in apart, and the joy in a heart.”_

_P.S. – Want to help out with the Newtown initiative? Each of MWR’s three cars, during Speedweeks will have a call-to-action initiative where texting “Newtown” to 80888 will produce a $10 donation for the cause._

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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