Single Parent, NASCAR fan has special day at the track
August 12, 2013
FORT WORTH, Texas - When planning any military mission, there are countless considerations to take. Several meetings between sections in a unit and different units must take place. Coordinated efforts between many different entities have to be made to support one another just to accomplish one goal. As similar, surprising a soldier to a visit with one of his heroes takes the same approach.
CNN's Headline News and Speedway Children's Charities were looking to highlight NASCAR driver Tony Stewart's "Smoke Show," which takes place annually at Texas Motor Speedway. At first, the plan was to invite Morning Express anchor Robin Meade to participate at the track. She instead brought up the idea to have a soldier from Fort Hood be given the opportunity that so many do not get. As this filtered through many channels to find a choice, one particular soldier who follows NASCAR as much as the most avid fan came to mind at III Corps, Fort Hood's operational headquarters. So through several "closed door" meetings and quiet phone calls, efforts were coordinated between commands and sections to insure Staff Sgt. Jason Thompson of HHC, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) would be able to attend.
Besides being a great Tony Stewart and race fan, Thompson also is the sole custody parent of two special needs children. He works tirelessly for the Army and his unit day in and day out, but before first formation and after last formation, he works even harder taking care of his sons.
On the morning of Aug. 14 at the first formation of the day, the first surprise arrived for Thompson. A Headline News cameraman showed up at the formation, Thompson was called up to stand alongside of his first sergeant, who then read off the personal invite on behalf of the charity and Texas Motor Speedway.
"I knew something was up because everyone was acting really weird the last couple of days, but I had know idea what was going on," Thompson said after the formation. Col. Mark Simerly, 4th SB brigade commander, was as elated to shake Thompson's hand after formation and congratulate him on being selected as Thompson was to hear the news.
"This is just really great for him and I'm appreciative of everyone's help in pulling this off," said Simerly.
At this point, the excitement for Thompson was just getting started. Aaron Brodie of Headline News planned to shadow Thompson all day so he could get a sense, and be able to tell the story, of what a day in the life of a single father with two special needs children, serving on active duty military status, was like. Off they went into the day, with Thompson having to take both of his kids to appointments that morning. Brodie was able to visit the home, understand the many challenges and complications that just one day was like for the family. He said many times how impressed he was with Thompson's ability to maintain the lifestyle that a soldier faces daily, yet alone handling the responsibilities he's facing additionally day in and day out.
Arrangements were made for Thompson to stay at a hotel across the street from Texas Motor Speedway. They were also made so the children's childcare specialist and her family would be able to stay so he would have the help necessary for the next day's events.
Of course, with so much planning and many moving pieces, there always is risk of the unknown. That night, the unknown visited as massive thunderstorms visiting the Fort Worth area where the speedway is located. Racetracks are outside of course, so there was now a good chance all of this planning and effort may have been put on hold due to the weather. As it stormed on the next morning, many calls were made to figure out what to do. Thompson still was unaware that Tony Stewart was waiting nearby and a full day of racing was set to take place.
A slight bump to the schedule was not a big deal, but a wet race track could prove to be very dangerous. The Texas Motor Speedway being a world class facility pulled out all the stops to make sure this event did not stop. They put out their jet blower trucks that racing fans may see on television during rain delayed races and started working on the track as soon as the weather broke at nearly 11 a.m.
By then, Thompson had been kept at bay long enough and it was time to get the day's events started. Meeting up at the speedway's media center were other participants who were paying for the opportunity to attend and be apart of the "Smoke Show." As the 20 individuals and some family members huddled at their lockers stocked with Stewart racing memorabilia, racing suits and shoes and chatted through their excitement, one participant was still made to wait.
"I'm a bit nervous to be honest," said Tony Stewart when briefing up the group in the room before Thompson came in. He was made fully aware about Thompson and his family, how much of a fan he was of Tony's and his active duty military service. As he also fielded a few questions from the anxious would-be drivers, he talked about how much respect he has for those wearing the uniform.
Once the time came for Thompson to meet Tony, the room became hushed and Stewart visibly seemed a bit anxious himself. He stood with a fire suit in hand patiently waiting. The doors finally opened to the room and very quickly an obviously happy Thompson lit up when he spotted Tony Stewart standing in the room. It didn't take but a few seconds for a generous handshake with some excited banter to be exchanged.
"I just want to be able to express to you how much gratitude I have, and respect, for what you do," Stewart told Thompson. He then presented Thompson with his fire suit, personally hung a placard with Thompson's name above his locker which was situated right beside Stewart's and talked with him about what was taking place that day.
With television cameras in tow, he was asked how excited he was about this. "I really don't know what to say, " Thompson replied. "It's just really cool that anyone could pull this off and I don't know how I'm anymore deserving than any other soldier serving."
Throughout the day, Thompson would reflect with those sentiments quite a few times. As most soldiers stand firm, selfless service is just part of serving your country.
After a couple of safety classes discussing the speed of the cars they would be driving and the rules, it was not too long until the drivers were headed out to the track ready to get behind the wheel.
Driver introductions took place just like at a real race even with the national anthem being sang. Everyone started making their way down "pit row" to where the cars were lined up. Groups were counted out with Thompson being the first driver selected to go.
Once geared up with a few last minute instructions, Thompson climbed into the car along with a race instructor and off they went for ten "hot laps" around one of the fastest motor speedways in the country.
"I think I did pretty good," he said after climbing out of the car once his first trek was complete. "The instructor kept telling me to level it off because I wanted to go faster."
After participants got their 10 laps in around the track, it was now "Smoke's" turn to cut loose. Each driver now would ride shotgun with Stewart at his pace. They would ride with him for three full laps at NASCAR "race speed."
"That was definitely a lot faster," Thompson said once back from his ride with Stewart, "and a lot louder."
Each driver was able to get in 10 more laps as the evening hours began to set in. The CNN crew continued to work tirelessly to record Thompson's story and his day at the track.