When Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney compete in the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, they won’t be driving for just themselves, or even their crews and sponsors.
The drivers, along with the rest of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field, will be taking part in NASCAR’s 600 Miles of Remembrance, a race-long salute to fallen members of the United States Military. For the duration of the 600-mile marathon at Charlotte Motor speedway, the header on each car’s windshield will bear the name of a soldier who was killed in the line of duty.
The veterans that Busch and Blaney are driving for have radically different backgrounds overseas, but one thing they do have in common is they’re both from Massachusetts.
Busch will be driving for Sgt. Robert Matern, who grew up in Worcester, Mass., and was awarded the Silver Star after being gunned down while leading a platoon in Vietnam in 1967. Blaney, on the other hand, will drive for Sgt. Gregory Belanger, of Deerfield, Mass., who was killed by an explosive while serving in Iraq in 2003.
Although Matern and Belanger aren’t here to witness the tributes, their families are, and to say the moment will be bittersweet is an understatement.
“It’s pretty amazing that he’s being honored this way, what Kurt is doing … it’s a total surprise,” Robert Matern’s brother Watler, who now lives in Maryland and confessed that he’s not much of a NASCAR fan, recently told NESN Fuel. “I think he’d consider it an honor. I know he would.”
“Just knowing that Greg touched so many lives, even this many years after, it really makes it feel that his memory does live on,” Belanger’s sister Alison Burham told NESN Fuel. “I know he’s up there watching. Of all the services and memorials that have gone on, this is the one where he’d be like ‘okay guys, this is pretty cool.’ ”
Sunday’s tribute without a doubt is unique. Both of these families, though, are accustomed to seeing their loved ones honored.
Belanger has his name on plaques in Rhode Island, Boston and at the end of the street he grew up on. And in Worcester, there’s an entire intersection named after Matern, something his brother is immensely proud of.
And although Sunday’s tribute ultimately is a reminder of things they wished hadn’t happened, it’s also an opportunity for these families to join the Memorial Day weekend festivities.
“It makes it happier, not so somber — more like a celebration versus something that hits you in your gut” Burham said. “This is like you can root for the car, I’m rooting for Greg, I’m hoping he’ll steer it. I hope Ryan wins.”
Waltern Matern, of course, hopes Kurt Busch and the No. 41 take visit victory lane Sunday. If that happens, though, Walter might not see it happen. Planning to drive from Cincinnati back to his home in Maryland on Sunday, Matern says he hopes he and his wife can make a pit stop, if only to see Robert’s name for just a moment.
Belanger’s family, on the other hand, will be living the NASCAR dream.
Thanks to a mutual friend who works on Blaney’s crew and played a major role in getting Belanger’s name on the No. 21, Burham and many of her brother’s family and friends will be at CMS on Sunday, getting a full VIP treatment.
Ultimately, it matters not how or where — or even if — Matern and Belanger’s families watch Sunday’s salute. What’s most important is their fallen heroes continue to be honored long after the checkered flag waves.
Thumbnail photo via Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports Images