TAMPA, Florida – Heroes, meet heroes.
A visit to MacDill Air Force Base by three NTT IndyCar Series drivers Thursday evolved into a meeting of mutual respect. Drivers expressed gratitude for the people who make U.S. Special Operations Command run around the clock, while those at USSOCOM paid respect for the skill of professional racers.
“It’s awesome,” said Conor Daly, who joined Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal and Rahal’s wife, recently retired NHRA drag racer Courtney Force, on the four-hour tour. “Every day we appreciate what everyone is doing here, and it’s cool for us to be able to come out and actually say to them in person, ‘Hey, you guys are doing incredible work here, and we thank you for everything you’re doing.’
“The fact that they think what we do is cool is awesome, as well. To be able to share experiences from both sides – our experiences to them and their experiences to us – is something pretty special.”
The four racers toured USSOCOM facilities at MacDill AFB, located four miles south of downtown Tampa, in advance of this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opener.
After visiting the Special Operations Memorial, a joint memorial that honors members of special operations forces of all U.S. military services, the drivers received a tour of NetOps, defined by the Department of Defense as the DoD-wide operational, organizational and technical capabilities for operating and defending the Global Information Grid.
Drivers also viewed some of the latest technological advancements in the military, including emergency medical devices and improved body armor. The drivers and their hosts were reminded of the similarities of their work.
“There’s a lot of crossover,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s merging into more and more similarities between the two. It’s amazing what they’re doing with simulators. It’s very similar to how we train with simulators in an Indy car. There’s a lot safety-wise that’s relative, too. What they’re doing with the troops really coincides with what we’re trying to do and what we are doing in INDYCAR.”
The most popular site was the parachute rigger shed, where drivers experienced virtual reality skydiving simulators. Wearing VR headsets and harnesses attached to a rig, Daly, Rahal and Hunter-Reay tried to land on a target from tens of thousands of feet in the virtual sky.
“I love this stuff,” Rahal said. “My whole life I’ve been obsessed with military stuff. It’s always been hugely interesting to me. My grandfather was in the Navy, so it’s really cool to see what they do. … It’s fun to be able to connect with them and talk to them. To be honest, they’re bigger heroes to me than they’d probably perceive. We all have to appreciate what they do, day in and day out.”
The most notable aspect of the visit was the reciprocated respect from military personnel. The drivers signed autographs, posed for photographs and answered questions about racing. Several military personnel stopped the drivers to say how closely they followed them. In turn, drivers told them to drop by and say hello during the race on the downtown St. Pete street circuit.
Time and again, drivers and military personnel pointed out the similarities in their occupations.
“It’s great to be able to meet all these people and learn behind the scenes what they do,” said Force, who retired in January as the most successful female Funny Car driver in NHRA history. “It compares a little bit to what we do – not to their level – but about the teamwork and trust and relying on people with your life. It was cool to see the technology they’re using to keep the military safer. It’s kind of like what we do in INDYCAR and NHRA. We’re looking for the next best thing to keep the drivers safe. It’s the same mindset.”
At the end of the tour, drivers expressed thanks to their hosts, who again returned the gratitude.
“We really appreciate what they do, and I think they see us as pretty unique athletes,” Hunter-Reay said. “It’s cool to blend the two worlds and learn about what goes on behind the scenes. I had no idea that so much was run behind the scenes here in the Bay Area. It was great to have access to some of these areas that are difficult to get into. This was an awesome opportunity.”