On the eve of Memorial Day, more than 10,000 active duty military and family members were honored by Charlotte Motor Speedway and business leaders from around the country prior to the Coca-Cola 600, as part of a Memorial Day weekend saluting the U.S. Armed Forces. The day of tribute featured a special celebration luncheon hosted by John Schnatter, founder, chairman and CEO of Papa John's International, where more than 3,000 pizzas were served to the military guests.
The star-studded affair was emceed by HLN's Robin Meade, and included special appearances by Lt. Col. Oliver North (ret), a political commentator, television host, military historian and New York Times best-selling author; Willie Robertson, star of "Duck Dynasty;" Kurt Busch, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet; Clint Bowyer, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver of the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota; Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway; Congressman Robert Pittinger; NASCAR driver and television personality, Michael Waltrip; and Papa John himself. The event was held at zMAX Dragway and also featured live music and a drag racing exhibition with Smith, Papa John and Busch.
"We have been involved with the military for many, many years and we were excited to partner with Charlotte Motor Speedway to honor the heroes of the U.S. military and their families," said Schnatter. "This is just one small way of saying 'thank you' for the sacrifice they and their families are making every day to defend our freedom."
North shared his perspective on Memorial Day with the troops.
"This Memorial Day race is held here for these American heroes and that's what they are – heroes," said North. "Normally people think of heroes as being someone wearing spandex and a cape. My heroes wear flak jackets and helmets and flight suits in difficult and dangerous places."
Hundreds of the troops were loaded onto buses courtesy of the speedway's Patriot Partners program, where companies such as Toyota, Papa John's, Goodyear, Coca-Cola, Bojangles' and more sponsored more than 30 Patriot Partner buses to transport them from area military bases. Fans were able to salute the troops as 600 soldiers marched through the grandstands as part of the pre-race ceremonies. The show also included an air parade featuring 10 vintage warbirds, the flight of an American bald eagle during the national anthem performed by Robin Meade and a 21-gun salute by the Fort Bragg firing squad.
"I'm humbled. I'm honored. I'm a retired soldier. We didn't do a lot of this when I was in the military," said John Falkenbury, president, USO of North Carolina, which helped organize the event. "I think America has got it right and it is just a phenomenal event. We are so appreciative of Papa John's and Charlotte Motor Speedway who bent over backwards, not just for this event, but for all races."