Every Veterans Day is an opportunity to pay respect to the men and women who served in the military to protect the United States of America.
In motorsports, the close relationship shared with the military stretches far beyond pre-race festivities that include the singing of the national anthem. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find a crew member on a team in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES who served.
In the case of Team Penske, Colin Davis, Blaine Hardy and John Haslett are among those who transitioned from their respective service branches into racing.
Davis, the mechanic and fueler on the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet for Scott McLaughlin, joined the Army in 2012 and served four years as a machine gunner in the infantry. He held the rank of specialist at the conclusion of his term and then pursued a career in racing.
“I did have an in between, so actually the whole thing was me and two of my other best friends I had in the Army, the whole idea was to get out of the Army and get into racing,” said Davis, an Ohio native.
There was a “gap year” until all three were reunited in 2017 at NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina.
“We graduated in April of 2018,” Davis said. “Then I volunteered with Jennifer Jo Cobb for a little while - they're a (NASCAR) Truck Series team - and then I started helping hang bodies for Young's Motorsports and then got with Penske in May of 2019.”
It became a dream start as Davis was assigned as a mechanic to Simon Pagenaud’s car at the time, part of the team that swept the Month of May with victories on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course followed by the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
“That was pretty nuts,” Davis said. “To go from hanging bodies at Young's Motorsports to Penske and then winning the biggest race in the world was pretty ridiculous, and I didn't see it coming.”
Hardy, a mechanic who also handles air jack duties on the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet driven by Will Power, was in the Marine Corps Reserves from 2006 to 2012. Hardy was a corporal by the conclusion of his term, with his primary duties handling logistics and embarkation.
Like Davis, Hardy also enrolled in the NASCAR Technical Institute after his time in the military.
“Racing was involved in my childhood, something I did Saturday nights back home,” Hardy said. “I went into the Marine Corps straight out of high school thinking that's the path I wanted to take. Turned out that's not exactly what I wanted to do, so I went reserve and I went to school.
“I did a few years of regular college and then after that I decided ... initially I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to work my hands. I knew I liked that kind of thing. Turns out I didn't want to sit behind a desk, and typical college wasn't for me. So, I worked in a machine shop most of my younger years. That was one of my first jobs.
“My dad worked there. He was a shop foreman, so I was very familiar with that kind of thing. Then I found out about NASCAR Tech (NTI), and I also went there. They actually got me in touch with Penske, and that's how I started out. I wanted to build engines on the NASCAR side and I got my foot in the door in the parts room of the INDYCAR team, and it just went from there. I did a year and a half in the parts room and then I wanted to go on the road to do pits, so I transferred to the truck department. I worked as a truck driver, and I did pit stops for a few years. And then in 2018, I decided I wanted to be involved a little bit more and I moved over to the mechanic side of things. I've been a mechanic since 2018.”
And success came with it as Hardy was part of Power’s remarkable win in the 2018 edition of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
“I think it was Oriol Servia that was in front of us,” Hardy said, recalling the final laps. “We came off (Turn) 4 and only had a few more laps to pass him, and he dives off into the pit lane. From that point on, I was like, 'As long as nothing bad happens here, we're going to bring this home right now.'
“It was the worst five laps of my life; just sweating, thinking about the preparation, make sure everything is good, is this thing going to make it these five laps and then finally crossing the Yard of Bricks. It was probably my favorite victory that I can remember.”
While the memories of that race won’t soon be forgotten, the one that hits down to the core is the pre-race ceremony, specifically, the playing of “Taps.”
“It means a lot to me,” Hardy said. “It means a lot that we put on that much of a show for the military. It makes me feel proud that I was a part of it. I like talking to the Marines that come out, letting them know that I'm prior service. We always strike up a conversation with that. ‘Taps’ always gets me. I don't care where I'm at or who's playing it, ‘Taps’ always get me.
“Part of my reserve duties from my company was to perform some military funerals, and it's something you don't ever get used to. What that song means, what the 21-gun salute means. It's just powerful no matter what happens.”
Then, there is John Haslett. The driver of RP1 (Roger Penske’s office motorcoach) and a mechanic, Haslett has been with Team Penske for 42 years.
Raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, Haslett was sworn in the U.S. Navy on New Year’s Eve on 1976. His term began with boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois, where he endured frigid temperatures of -22 F. He went on to be a boatswain’s mate and then eventually a hull technician, with time spent on an “ocean-going tug” in the North Atlantic waters off the coast of Scotland and Wales. He finished his term in 1981 with the rank of petty officer second class.
Haslett returned home to Pennsylvania and found himself in a unique situation.
“My uncle, his shop was a frame-straightening business right next to Penske Racing, the original one in Newtown Square,” said Haslett, 64. “I originally grew up until fifth grade in Newtown Square. Then we moved. In sixth grade, we moved to the farm. After my uncle sold the frame-straightening business, which the IROCs Mr. Penske used to bring them over and straighten the frames there at his facility. He went and became the parts runner for Penske Racing, and they moved to Reading, Pennsylvania. And he still resided in Newtown Square. So from Poole, England, where the cars were built, he would go down to Philadelphia, became very friendly with customs.
“In '81 when I got out, I got out of the service, and I didn't know really if I wanted to work on the farm or what my future was. He asked me if I'd like to go during this break time to Indianapolis to help set the garages up. I said, 'Yeah, sure.' What an experience.
“So, it went from there being a gopher, and I loved it. And I worked for Bobby Unser in '81. And of course, we won the race. The adrenaline rush was unbelievable, and it just went from there. I've been a member of the team ever since.”
While each of the three veterans have enjoyed success in racing, they each credit the structure and discipline instilled in them from the military as core values that aided each of their respective transitions.
“It's been a dream, really,” Haslett said. “I wouldn't change a thing. It has been really quite the life.”