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NASCAR driver Carl Edwards couldn’t have asked for a more properly suited birthday present. The driver of the #99 Aflac Ford had little time to celebrate his 32nd birthday last Monday after rain postponed Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen by a day. But Tuesday turned into a delayed birthday reward appropriate for a man who loves speed and thrills.
As part of a promotion for the September races at Richmond International Raceway, the track staff arranged for Edwards and a small media contingent to pay a visit to the Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, the group would not make a casual gangplank entry onto a vessel at dock but instead reach the ship by means that many Navy personnel aboard had never experienced.
The Eisenhower set sail out of the Norfolk on Monday morning and by Tuesday the vessel was well underway running training missions in the Atlantic Ocean, 200 miles south-southwest of the coast. So RIR and the US Navy arranged for Edwards and company to fly out of Norfolk on a C2 Greyhound transport and make a tailhook landing aboard the flight deck. With the assistance of arresting cables, the plane quickly decelerated on the 1000 foot deck, going from 105 mph to a dead stop in two seconds.
But that was only the beginning of the fun for Edwards.
He exited the transport, traversed the narrow corridors and nearly vertical stairways of the craft to meet up with the Eisenhower’s top officers. Captain Marcus Hitchcock provided Edwards with a warm welcome then gave a quick rundown of his vessel’s current mission- training F-18 pilots to land and take off from an aircraft carrier in preparation of deployment overseas. “It’s day and night,” Hitchcock said. “We go to about 2 a.m. every morning.”
Edwards was then suited up in safety gear and escorted back the flight deck where he stood scant feet away as F-18s made tailhook landings and takeoffs via catapult launch.
On the open ocean, a steady stiff wind blows across the flight deck, trip hazards are everywhere and there is no railing to prevent someone from accidently falling, or as everyone was warned, being blown off the deck, by wind or jet turbulence. The result of which would be a 100 foot plunge to the ocean below.
Though known for his adventurous spirit, even Edwards was daunted by, not only the level of speed, but the dangers each of the sailors face in everyday life.
“They let me go up there and stand right next to the F-18s while they were landing and taking off,” an amazed Edwards said.
The experience also gave Edwards a different perspective on his own sport. “I guess in a lot of ways right now I feel like a race fan,” he said. “I saw Top Gun when I was a kid and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
“I watch the Discovery Channel and the History Channel and watch shows about these aircraft carriers,” he said. “To stand there right next to the catapult launch and to stand next to the arresting cables and stuff and to see it happen, it’s got to be what the fans feel like when they stand next to the fence and seeing NASCAR for the first time.”
Because the Eisenhower is currently in and out of port on training missions there is the possibility it will be docked in time for the races at RIR.
“A lot of these guys will be out there at Richmond, which will be really cool to know that while we’re out there driving they’re experiencing our sport the same way I’m experiencing their lives,” Edwards said.
Edwards then returned below decks to the cavernous #2 hanger bay where he spent the majority of his day signing autographs and talking with each of a long line of sailors.
“It’s crazy,” Edwards said. “People have all sorts of NASCAR stuff. I saw a couple of #99 hats and I met people from all over the country. There were folks from Missouri. One guy, his sister went to the prom with my brother, so I’m almost related to guy here, that’s crazy.”
But overall, Edwards felt surprised at the level of interest in NASCAR among the Eisenhower’s crew. “It’s amazing how many of these folks follow our sport and love NASCAR.”
Nicholas Deweese easily fell into that category. In 2009, the E-6 out of Chesapeake, Va. was named the second biggest NASCAR fan in the country by the Official NASCAR Members Club. Though an avid Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, Deweese was just as happy with Edwards’ visit. “NASCAR is NASCAR,” he said. “We get a driver out here it doesn’t matter who it is.”
But even Deweese was not above a little traditional NASCAR digging. “It’s better than Kyle Busch, that’s for sure.” Deweese still holds a grudge from the 2009 race at RIR where Busch spun out Earnhardt on the final laps.
Though he holds no official NASCAR title, Mechanicsville’s Jeremy Jackson considered himself of even higher standing than Deweese. MMC Select Jackson is a nuclear mechanic that has served aboard the Eisenhower since January of 2009.
“I’m probably the world’s biggest NASCAR fan,” he said. “I’m a Jeff Gordon fan but when I was told Carl Edwards, I was giggling like a kid at Christmas…Jeff Gordon’s my favorite driver but just anybody could have come out here and I’d just be tickled pink.”
The 2002 graduate of Lee-Davis High School got his chance to talk with Edwards and have a wooden storage case autographed. “It’s awesome that they’d come out here,” Jackson said. “We have some distinguished visitors come out and stuff like that, but he is by far the coolest that’s come out here.”
Jackson tried to relate just how important visits, not only by Edwards, but also the contingent following him, are to the military. “It lets you know, out of his busy schedule and all of you taking time out of your schedule, to come out here and visit and you get to see the ship under way,” Jackson said. “See how we kind of do things under way. It means a lot to me personally. Some people really don’t approve of the military but to have you all come out here, it reminds us that people still care.”
Though the level of speed and excitement of aircraft carrier life may be the same in NASCAR, Edwards said there is really no comparison between the two. “What we do is fun,” he said. “We go out and race. We do it in weather that’s nice. We have rules and all these things. These guys are out here and they’re ready for anything. This is real. It’s a hostile environment for a number of reasons. There are a lot of similarities but this is serious, there’s a lot on the line.”
In the mess hall, Edwards was presented with a cake and the complimentary singing of ‘Happy Birthday,’ by crew members.
Edwards visit then wrapped up with his biggest thrill of the day; a catapult launch of the C2 for the trip back to Norfolk. The steam powered catapult accelerated the transport plane from zero to 128 mph in three seconds.
“They told me that plane was 53,000 pounds at take off,” Edward said. “Fifty-three thousand pounds they accelerated like that! I deal with a lot of speed and acceleration but nothing like that, that was crazy.”
Back on the ground in Norfolk with his delayed birthday surprise complete, Edwards was left with a great appreciation for the men and women who serve in the military. “It’s just spectacular what these sailors are out here doing,” he said. “They’re sacrificing and putting themselves in a very high risk environment for our country and it’s an honor that they had us here today. It’s really amazing to see.
“When I’m sitting in my racecar this week (at Michigan), I’ll be thinking about these guys watching from an aircraft carrier,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”