At RIR race, they'll trade you some fun for your name
Sunday, September 18, 2005

The armed services need about 275,000 recruits this year, and officials see NASCAR fans as fertile ground. So nearly every weekend between February and November, recruiters and marketers work the races.

At last Sunday's race, on the carnival-like midway outside Richmond International Raceway before the Chevy Rock and Roll 400, the Army and Navy had prominent displays to entice fans.

Beneath a 60-foot-tall pylon emblazoned with "An Army of One," visitors could fly in an Apache helicopter simulator, test their pit-crew skills, scale a rock wall, try on body armor or have a personal dog tag made. The crowd favorite was a lifesize video game where players drove a Humvee through a Baghdad neighborhood, shooting insurgents with a laser-tipped machine gun.

Price of admission: name, address, phone number, age and education, filled out on a card.

A hundred yards away, a Navy band, Four-Star Edition, alternated between rock and country-western favorites. A replica of the Navy's No. 14 racecar and a Navy SEAL desert-fighting vehicle -- a souped-up dune buggy used in Iraq and Afghanistan -- held fans' attention. Driver David Stremme, who steers the Navy's No. 14 Busch Series car, signed autographs.

At the track, recruiters lack the time for a full-court pitch. Their job is to make first contact, get names and phone numbers. Afterward, those leads are passed to local recruiters who try to enlist the fans.

"It's all about meeting and greeting, belly to belly," said Master Sgt. Tom Kichline, whose job actually is Air Force superintendent of motor sports.

The Army's simulators and pit-stop challenge did their job. They attracted the attention of the Nagel brothers -- Jason, 24, and Nick, 16 -- from Canton, Ohio.

Reeling off drivers' names and military affiliations, the Nagels showed their knowledge of the military's NASCAR brands. Just what recruiters want.

But that was the limit of their interest. Asked if they would sign up, Jason said no, while Nick said he might be interested in the Marine Corps.

He added: "I'll tell my friends about this. [The Army] might interest them."

As they milled around the Army encampment, many young race fans liked the exhibits but had little interest in joining the military.

Josh Johnson, a lanky 16-year-old from Emerald Isle, N.C., explained why he spent time eyeing the Army and Navy displays: "free stuff." He held up a plastic bag filled with pens and other souvenirs collected at the track.

Interested in joining up? Johnson shrugged "no," and then got in line to try out the Baghdad convoy interactive game.

A few days before entering boot camp, Justin Wright, 20, of Richmond said his fascination with auto racing spurred his interest in the Army.

"I always wanted to join the military, but racing got me interested in the Army because they have a car," he said.

High school senior Chelle Carpenter, 18, also of Richmond, said NASCAR was a factor for her in choosing the Army. She has signed up for a delayed enlistment and will go to boot camp next summer.

"It swayed me a little bit," she said. "The Navy has a Busch [Series] car, but the Army is in the [Nextel] Cup, so it persuaded me because it's a bigger deal."

Not all the military services are into video games and rock bands. When the Marines, a Busch Series sponsor, set up at a race, it is decidedly low-tech.

"We could put up a rock wall, but our budget's not as big as the Army's," said Marine recruiter Sgt. Matthew Roberson of Richmond. "The Army has simulators and lasers. We put up a pull-up bar in our booth."

Building morale is the flip side of the military's NASCAR effort.

Recruits Wright and Carpenter were Army guests at the Richmond race, with prerace pit passes and a chance to meet Army-sponsored driver Joe Nemechek.

Stock-car racing is very popular with the troops, military officers and race team owners said. Soldiers in Iraq watch races via satellite, and teams regularly get requests from the war zone for posters and autographs.

"I think it's a big morale booster for the current Marines and former Marines," said Ashton Lewis Jr., who drives the No. 25 Busch Series car for the Marines.

While he and the other NASCAR drivers have not served in the military, Lewis said it is special to race with the "Marines" on the hood.

"It means a whole lot more to have Marines on my car than a commercial sponsor," Lewis said. "You aren't representing a product you buy -- you're representing the men and women who defend this country."

James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service. E-mail