April 21st, 2007 06:32 EST
NASCAR Drivers Downshift to Navy Life
NAS NORTH ISLAND, Calif. (NNS) -- National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. and fellow speed enthusiast Shane Huffman, driver of the No. 88 Navy Accelerate Your Life Chevrolet Monte Carlo, downshifted from their typical day on the race track to “accelerate their lives” aboard USS Cleveland (LPD 7) on April 18.
The one-day embark allowed the professional drivers to experience Navy life aboard the oldest amphibious ship in the fleet, as the crew celebrated Cleveland’s 40th birthday.
“The visit gave us a behind-the-scenes look at what the Navy’s all about,” said Earnhardt who is driver of the No. 8 Budweiser car and owner of the JR Motorsports team. “Civilians don’t usually get that sort of access and to be able to meet the Sailors, hear the stories and see the training involved is impressive.”
Arriving aboard Cleveland in an MH-60S from the “High Rollers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 85, Earnhardt and Huffman toured the ship’s main spaces, living areas, and mess decks, to see firsthand the commitment necessary to provide America with a combat-ready surface warship.
“The level of teamwork we saw is the one thing that’s synonymous with our sport,” explained Earnhardt. “We can’t win races without our team, which has to work as a unit. If one part of the unit fails, we all fail. That seems to be the motto of the Navy as well.”
As the two NASCAR professionals trekked Cleveland’s “haze-gray” spaces, Sailors got a chance to swap stories and shake hands with two of their favorite racers.
For Cleveland Sailor Chief Fire Controlman (SW) Joshua Letson, the experience allowed him to reach a goal he’s been chasing for many years.
“I’ve been trying to get some items from my personal collection signed for quite some time,” said Letson. “I took them to both of the races in California and Las Vegas, and planned to bring them with me when I go watch the race in Phoenix this weekend. So, it’s pretty ironic that I finally get them signed aboard my ship -- while we are underway.”
Cleveland’s crew has been working tirelessly to prepare for their upcoming deployment. Although many of the crew members left their memorabilia at home, kind sentiments shared by Earnhardt and Huffman proved more valuable than a signature.
“We’ve been doing engineering drills for the past couple weeks,” explained Fireman Joe Pilger, who works below decks in the engineering main spaces. “Being able to come off watch is relief enough, but then I get to shake hands with some of my favorite race car drivers who tell me they appreciate what I do -- that’s awesome. Tonight I’m going to paint the bilge with a big ole’ smile on my face.”
Cleveland Command Master Chief (SS) Bill Steele expressed his thanks to Earnhardt and Huffman for the visit that helped carry his crew’s spirits through a challenging underway period.
“Anytime we can give back even an ounce of what the military does for us is certainly our pleasure,” said Huffman. “Like Junior [Earnhardt] said earlier, going out and meeting the men and women who serve our country is a great honor for us; and we are more than happy to do it.”
USS Cleveland is conducting the ship’s Final Evaluation Period (FEP) off the coast of San Diego.
FEP evaluates Cleveland’s total combat readiness and is mandatory before deploying. After successfully completing FEP, the “Steamin’ Cleve” is slated to join other units in Expeditionary Strike Group 3 for a deployment this fall.
“We appreciate everything that all the men and women in the military do,” said Earnhardt. “We owe a lot to the military, and we support our troops.”
For more news from around the fleet, visit www.navy.mil.
By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (SW/AW) Chris Fahey, Naval Air Forces Public Affairs