FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Jumping into the driver's seat of a Humvee -- that's right up a race car driver's alley. But strapping into a parachute? Not so much.
NASCAR driver Ryan Newman figured that out when he spent the day with paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The visit came ahead of the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600 race, where Newman will be representing the Army as part of the event's salute to military heroes.
Aside from the Humvee, Newman saw an M777 howitzer demonstration close-up, got to learn how to fire a rocket launcher, and tried on infantry gear and a parachute -- which, again, he didn't love.
"I've never been strapped up with a parachute," Newman said. "I understand why they jump out of the plane now -- to get that stuff off of them. It's heavy and awkward."
One more treat was riding around in a light tactical all-terrain vehicle before unveiling the car he'll drive at the Coca-Cola 600. On the windshield is inscribed the name of 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper Sgt. James Nolen, who was killed in action in 2009 in Afghanistan. Nolen's widow, Rachel, and their daughter, 9-year-old Jamie, who was born a few months after he died, helped unveil the car.
"To see him honored and remembered and to know that his sacrifice hasn't been forgotten … it means the world to me," Rachel Nolen said. "I know he's smiling down from heaven right now."
Nolen described her husband as an adrenaline junkie who loved anything that was fast. She said he'd be thrilled to have his name on a race car.
"To have Sgt. Nolen's name on my windshield and to represent someone who gave us the freedom that we have … to put a smile on his daughter's and wife's face is so important to me," Newman said. "It's such a Family-oriented sport. To give back in a special way on Memorial Day weekend -- if that doesn't pull on your heartstrings, nothing does."
Newman helped squeeze Jamie Nolen into the race car and let her rev the engine. She then gave Newman a memorial bracelet with her father's name on it.
"What Miss Jamie had written in her little card there is what means the world to me. That was really special. It choked me up," Newman said. "I've got an 8-year-old daughter myself, and a 6-year-old daughter. I feel like I'm representing a lot of things when I represent Sergeant Nolen's name on that windshield."
After the presentation, Newman signed some hats that he handed out to Soldiers. He couldn't thank them enough for the experience.
"All the good parts of being a human show up in a U.S. Army Soldier. Today just showed me that even more," Newman said.