The NASCAR Cup Series‘ Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is held on Memorial Day weekend, meaning one can expect to see plenty of patriotic liveries and tributes to fallen service members. Rick Ware Racing will do the same as the team announced Monday that all four vehicles will sport paint schemes honouring four major branches of the United States Armed Forces.
The effort is supported by sponsor Nurtec ODT‘s Military Salutes Program and Nine Line Apparel. Military Salutes was formed before the 2021 season a means for the team to support the armed forces, which includes a touring show car to military bases. Nine Line Apparel, a veteran-owned clothing brand, sponsored Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2018 and will sell t-shirts with proceeds going to the 22 Until None veteran suicide prevention group.
“As a veteran owned, giveback organization, our brand was built on the foundation of honoring those heroes we’ve lost on the battlefield, and supporting those still struggling back home,” Nine Line Chief Marketing Officer Rich Caponi said. “We know that Rick Ware Racing and the Nurtec ODT team share this same passion, which is why we’re proud to partner with them on this initiative. Memorial Day Weekend in Charlotte will be a time to honor the heroes who have given their lives in service to this great country, while also raising awareness and support for veterans fighting internal battles on the home front.”
The #15 of James Davison will feature the United States Navy while the Marine Corps, its “sister service”, will appear on J.J. Yeley‘s #53. Garrett Smithley‘s #51 honours the Army and Josh Bilicki‘s #52 pays tribute to the Air Force. As Cup teams are limited to four cars, the newest branch Space Force will have to sit the 600 out while the Coast Guard is attached to the Department of Homeland Security in peacetime rather than Defense like the others.
“We are beyond grateful for the opportunity to honor our nation’s heroes in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway,” team owner Rick Ware stated. “Nurtec ODT and Nine Line Apparel are both huge advocates for our active-duty service members and veterans. Working together with both organizations to create this opportunity, is very special for Rick Ware Racing as well as all of the family members who have lost someone who has served this great country.”
RWR is no stranger to fielding military-themed liveries. For the 2019 Coca-Cola 600, the team’s three cars emulated historic military aircraft with the #51 being modelled after the famed Flying Tigers of World War II, the #52 after the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird recon plane, and the #53 on the “Red Tails” of the Tuskegee Airmen. The 600 was also the #53’s début in a points race after first appearing in the All-Star Race the previous week with the same design.
Unlike military sponsorships in the past, the Department of Defense has no involvement in RWR’s paint schemes. The Pentagon ended the sponsorships in 2012 following debate surrounding their impact in recruiting compared to how much was being spent. The National Guard, while not one of the uniformed branches as it is primarily a state-run reserve force, left NASCAR in 2014 for the same reason.
Prior to the armed services’ withdrawal, seeing branches on cars was not uncommon. The 1991 Daytona 500 most prominently featured all five major branches at the time to support Operation Desert Storm. Future champion Alan Kulwicki drove his Army car to the lone top ten of the five in eighth ahead of Mickey Gibbs (Navy), Dave Marcis (Coast Guard), Buddy Baker (Marines) and Greg Sacks (Navy).
While the 500 marked the first race for the other four branches, the Army first appeared on Cup cars in the late 1970s. In the 2000s, with more sponsorship experience in drag racing, the Army returned to NASCAR as a primary sponsor and was most notably associated with MB2 Motorsports‘ #01 (the number was a reference to the branch’s “Army of One” slogan) and Stewart-Haas Racing‘s #39. Both cars would visit Victory Lane twice with Joe Nemechek (#01 at Kansas 2004) and Ryan Newman (#31 at Loudon 2011).
The Navy only sponsored a Cup car three more times after the 1991 500, but its presence was more felt in the lower series. Roush Fenway Racing‘s Truck Series #50 was sponsored by the Navy in 2002 and 2003 before the seafaring branch became a full-time sponsor in what is now the Xfinity Series. After working with FitzBradshaw Racing‘s #14 for three years, the Navy joined JR Motorsports‘ #88. The #88 Navy car holds much sentimental value for Cup star Brad Keselowski—a longtime supporter of the military—as he drove it his first NASCAR national series victories in 2008, the final year of Navy sponsorship.
Like its fellow Department of the Navy branch, the Marine Corps primarily invested sponsorship into the Xfinity Series. From 1999 to 2006, the USMC’s Team Marines brand was a primary sponsor for Hank Parker Racing and Team Rensi Motorsports. All five of Bobby Hamilton Jr.‘s career wins came with Rensi and the USMC. At the Cup level, the branch was mostly just an associate sponsor on occassion with its final appearance as a primary being with Mike Bliss at Martinsville in 2002. Current Cup regular Denny Hamlin was the last driver to have the Marines in some capacity on a top-series car with the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 as an associate.
The Air Force is technically the only branch to continue as a sponsor after the Pentagon’s withdrawal. Since 2009, Richard Petty Motorsports has maintained a limited-scale partnership with the Air Force via an independent group that provides funding in the branch’s name. In the mid-2000s, the USAF was on Wood Brothers Racing‘s #21 Cup car and Truck, the former alongside Motorcraft; the latter was driven by Jon Wood, who also piloted the Roush Navy truck prior to returning to the family team. The Air Force also currently sponsors NTT IndyCar Series team Ed Carpenter Racing; the Space Force, a Department of the Air Force entity, sponsored ECR’s namesale and owner/driver in the 2020 Indianapolis 500.
While the Coast Guard only transfers to the Department of Defense (and Navy) during war or at the President’s discretion, it also follows its water-based counterparts by mainly being an Xfinity sponsor. From 2004 to 2005, the USCG was Justin Labonte‘s lone primary sponsor in the series, during which he scored a victory in his first year. The Coast Guard moved to Richard Childress Racing in 2006, where it enjoyed winning the series championship with Kevin Harvick; for the 2020 Darlington throwback race, then-RCR Xfinity driver Anthony Alfredo ran a livery based on the Coast Guard car. Jerry Nadeau in the 2000 600 and Bliss at Texas in 2005 are the only drivers besides Marcis to have the Coast Guard on their Cup cars.
The National Guard first débuted in 2003 with Todd Bodine before switching to Roush and Greg Biffle, the latter of whom finished second in the 2005 Cup title battle. From 2007 to its departure in 2014, the National Guard mainly sponsored Hendrick Motorsports‘ #25 of Casey Mears and #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon also ran some races with the National Guard in 2009 and it was the team’s Xfinity sponsor in 2007 and 2008. A National Guard car has won sixteen times in the Cup Series, with Biffle doing so ten times and Mears’ lone Cup victory.
The Coca-Cola 600 is scheduled for 30 May. Other teams will likely reveal their own special paint schemes in the coming weeks, while Goodyear has traditionally replaced the “Eagle” branding on its tyres with a patriotic slogan like “Support Our Troops”.
RWR’s four-car programme has featured a plethora of drivers. While Cody Ware usually drives the #51, he will step aside as he likely heads to the team’s IndyCar side for the Indy 500 that same day. Davison has committed to a 26-race schedule for the team in the #15 in a car that sits thirty-ninth in owner points with other starts by Derrike Cope, Joey Gase, and Chris Windom. Yeley has shared the #53 with Smithley and Gase in 2021, and the car is thirty-second in the standings. With Ware not expected to enter the 600, Bilicki is the lone RWR driver running the full schedule.