For automobile racing fans, Memorial Day weekend is about as good as it gets. From the Formula One circuit’s Monaco Grand Prix early Sunday morning to the Indianapolis 500 at noon followed by the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in the evening, auto racing is center stage in the sports world.
But Memorial Day weekend also is a somber time, as the nation honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice serving their country in the armed forces.
Ryan Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team will be representative of both aspects of Memorial Day weekend as the No. 21 Fusion will carry the name of the late U.S. Army Sgt. Gregory Belanger, who was killed on Aug. 27, 2003, in Hallia, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It’s a part of NASCAR’s annual 600 Miles of Remembrance, a way of honoring American fighting men and women who gave their lives in service of their country.
Belanger, who was serving with the U.S. Army Reserves, died when an improvised explosive struck his convoy vehicle. Belanger, who was from Deerfield, Mass., but was living in Narragansett, R.I., at the time of his death, was the first soldier from Rhode Island to die in Iraq since the start of U.S.-led military operations there. He was just 24 years old.
Belanger graduated from Johnson and Wales University in 2001 with a degree in Culinary Arts. He was first called to active duty to serve as a cook following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and his unit covered for the 92nd Airborne Division from Ft. Bragg, N.C.
He returned to active duty in 2003, serving again in Iraq with the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion, attached to the 94th Regional Readiness Command.
Kathleen Belanger told reporters after her son’s death that he was an excellent and creative chef.
“He was a whiz,” she said. “He was creative and could take whatever was in the refrigerator and pull out this gourmet dish from his soul and his head.”
She also thanked those who remembered him by placing a sign with his name on it in his hometown of Deerfield.
“People have not forgotten the war,” she said. “They haven’t forgotten how it can change a family’s life so dramatically.”
For Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion, it’s important for the team to have a strong run at Charlotte, both from a competitive standpoint and to honor Sgt. Belanger.
“You always want to do a good job of representing your team and your sport and your country on Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to win the 600 four times, and we’d love nothing more that to get a fifth with Ryan Blaney.”
The Wood Brothers won the 600 twice with David Pearson, in 1974 and 1976, with the late Neil Bonnett in 1982 and with Kyle Petty in 1987.
“Our cars have been fast every week, and Ryan’s doing a great job of driving them,” he said. “He won a stage last Saturday to get us in the All-Star race, and I’m confident the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion will be a factor come Sunday night.”