CHARLOTTE — The Coca-Cola 600 has come and gone, but the impact it left on families of fallen soldiers is still being felt on Memorial Day.
In the garage alone, there are more than 50 pit crew members who served in the military. For BK Racing, a small two-car team, six of the crew members are retired servicemen — the third most across NASCAR, behind only Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing.
So when BK Racing planned to tribute fallen soldiers on Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 83 car, the team knew it had to do it right. As a result, more than 100 names of fallen soldiers were emblazoned along the back of the car, opposite a hood that read, “Home of the free, because of the brave.”
Mitch Lash, a former ejection seat mechanic on F-14 Tomcats in the Navy, is a current jackman for the No. 23 BK Racing car who describes his position as, “Running out in front of cars for a living.” While he was admittedly jealous he’s not jacking up DiBenedettos’ car, he hopes it will be a reminder of what Memorial Day truly stands for in the United States.
“That 83 car, that’s unreal. That’s my favorite car out here,” Lash said. “Most people get it, but you can watch social media and understand just how many Americans don’t understand what this day is about. It’s good to know people who come up with the money and the sponsorships for our teams do.”
— BK Racing (@BKRacing_2383) May 28, 2016
DiBenedetto also has a special connection to the military. His brother, Austin, currently serves in the Air Force, but has still attended several races this season — including DiBenedetto’s career-high sixth-place finish at Bristol.
Looking across the names on the back of his car, DiBenedetto couldn’t help getting emotional about what it meant to his family.
“It’s really neat to be able to come together as a whole community to honor those who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “Having a brother who serves, it hits close to home for me every time I see the car. I can’t imagine dealing with that loss, so this is honestly the least we could do for those who can’t be here with us.”
For Jodi Baum, a NASCAR fan from Altoona, Penn., the No. 83 paint scheme cuts deep.
Both of his brothers served in the Marine Corps and Jodi, the youngest in his family, was told not to join by his siblings. At one point Jodi was even signed up to enlist, but was convinced to stay home and protect his family by both brothers.
Gunnery Sgt. Ronald Baum, a Marine who volunteered to go to Iraq, was killed May 3, 2004 in Anbar province of Iraq in the turret of a Humvee when it was hit by a rocket. Based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., Ronnie’s death was close to home for BK Racing.
“When BK Racing called and said they would have my brother’s name on the car, I broke down,” Jodi said. “It’s such an honor to see his name along with so many others that lost their life fighting for our freedom.”
As an undercover interrogator for the Marine Corps, Ronnie spoke Arabic, Russian, French, Italian and Chinese. He also served as an instructor at the Naval Survival School in Rangeley, Maine, teaching troops to survive and evade capture in hostile environments.
Making the ultimate sacrifice for his country was the way Ronnie would have wanted to go, according to Jodi. For his brothers still here, it gives them solace to remember his life on Memorial Day each year.
“People always tell me, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ but there’s nothing to be sorry about,” Jodi said. “It’s tough. It’s hard. But it makes Memorial Day a special day because we can truly honor his life. He’s been gone for over 10 years now and I still remember him every day because of the impact he made on me.
“The impact he made on the rest of the world was far greater than that.”