Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Real American Idols

In separate incidents this weekend at the Coca-Cola 600, two fans recognized me as “the guy who wrote the NASCAR Fan book.”

That’s an uplifting jolt for a formerly nondescript civilian.

But also very depressing.

I will never be able to urinate in public again.

I joke.

It was actually a weekend more serious than frivolous as NASCAR honored the fallen men and women of our armed forces during our annual Memorial Day race.

I was humbled to have been invited to Charlotte Motor Speedway's Medal of Honor dinner to speak about The Weekend Starts on Wednesday along with one of the remarkable fans featured, Cpl. John Hyland, who lost a leg in Iraq and would sing the national anthem prior to one of the sport's biggest races of the year.

The stage up in the Speedway Club featured three comfy chairs set for an “intimate discussion” in an Actor's Studio-type atmosphere. What I didn't know was the low-slung cushiony chairs were on brass wheels on a very slippery floor.

I’m always excited to talk about my book, so when introduced by Doug Rice, who would call Sunday's race on the radio, I bound up to the stage like a giddy contestant on The Price is Right. I flop into the chair...which flies back as if it were shot from a cannon. I yell, WHOAH and dig my heels in. The chair miraculously stops two feet from the back of the stage and a good drop which may have killed me.

There are only 90 living Medal of Honor recipients, and three are being honored tonight. One soldier, Bob Maxwell, smothered a grenade in eastern France in Sept., 1944, saving his platoon. Had he picked up the grenade, Bob explains, it likely would have detonated, killing him and his unit. So he dove on it. Amazingly, Bob survived the injuries and walks with only a slight limp.

Another Medal of Honor hero singlehandedly took on 13 enemy combatants in a Korean foxhole, killing every one of them in brutal hand-to-hand combat.

“I jumped in the hole and scared the devil out of them,” he explained. He impaled one surprised Asian fellow with his rifle and shot the rest.

The story is told in a way that has everyone laughing. If I tried for a year, I wouldn’t do it justice.

Surrounded by this into-a-nearby-phone-booth, awe-inspiring, Greatest Generation heroism, it would have been the lame PR guy killed amid the excitement of speaking publicly after his freaking chair slid off the stage.

Thankfully, the seat that became my ride stops a few feet before I would have plummeted to my premature demise.

After a fun and entertaining Q&A with Cpl. Hyland, a genteel older lady whose wool blazer sported several glittery red, white and blue American flag pins, as well as a larger clear rhinestone pendant reading, “It's Not the Destination It's The Journey,” asks me to sign her Medal of Honor book, a well-done coffee-table compilation of those honored. She mistakenly believes I'm a war hero (even though I'm clearly a p-ssy from Long Island). Waddaya gonna do. I sign.

Real book signings of the tome for which I'm responsible will happen at the track and local mall. Cpl. Hyland joins one, and does a slew of media interviews. He is feted at the Speedway Club, meets VIPs, and is introduced at the driver's meeting. All of that is a prelude to THE moment -- performing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Over eight years, I've had many memorable experiences doing PR for NASCAR. Sunday was tops. Declaring in The Weekend Starts on Wednesday I would do my darndest to get Cpl. Hyland to sing at a track (without a clue how to do that) and then seeing John (standing courageous and tall, serious and focused and intent on staying in the zone when "Taps" finishes so he can hit that first note with perfect pitch) in his smart dress blues belting out a heartfelt, beautiful, melodic version of "The Star Spangled Banner" brings me to tears. I'd like to thank Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray for making it OK for a grown man to ball his eyes out at a race track when something really good happens to you and your team after you've worked so hard for it.

"I didn't get to leave Iraq on my own two feet," Cpl. Hyland said. "To walk out on stage under my own power, in my hometown of Charlotte, singing for my country, my sport and all the fallen heroes, was amazing."

Get this: Corporal Hyland is actually a Sergeant. The Army Scout for the elite First Calvary division was promoted after being blown up on Sept 11, 2007.

Now you or I, we get a promotion and insist on the use of our new title. We change our busines cards and get it inscribed on the office door. We correct people who repeat our "old" affiliation. Corporal is just fine by John. "It's what I was when I got hurt," he says.

He nailed a very tough song in front of 130,000 or so at the race, about six million on TV and 3.5 million listening on the radio, doing so after a long day of commitments in the blazing North Carolina sun and the usual 30-some odd pills taken every few hours.

Even after swallowing the back section of Walgreen's several times a day, watch closely and you see the soldier wincing in pain. The titanium leg attached at the army hospital outside San Antonio is actually his good one. The leg they saved hurts like hell. When Cpl. Hyland changed in the NASCAR radio hauler, he showed his remaining foot, metal rods and screws visible through the skin. The look of it is painful. But he never, ever complains.

Cpl. H makes it around the track pretty well. You'd never know there's a huge rod going thru his pelvis, one side to other, basically holding together his torso.

Hollywood types enjoy coming to our races, and we saw the lovelier than lovely Jessica Biel a few times as she promoted the new "A Team" movie. John hadn't made a single demand all weekend long. It was time for his first one: just ten minutes alone with Jessica in the hauler. Any hauler.

"John is a chick magnet," I told the lovely Ms. Biel. "But I think it's because of all the metal holding him together."

Actually, it's his bravery that draws the women. Chicks dig guys who dive on grenades, and kill a foxhole-full of bad guys, and are blown to shit but then walk into the limelight under their own power to honor God, country, their families, their sport and, most of all, themselves.