Nascar Drivers Lay Wreath At The Tomb of the Unknowns Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the humid stillness of Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick solemnly walked down a set of stairs toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

They lined up, along with a member of the military honor guard who ceremonially patrol the tomb, and then stepped forward together to place a wreath in front of the giant marble structure.

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Hands over their hearts, they stood silently amidst the quiet of the cemetery where more than 330,000 men and women are buried.

A few minutes later, in the basement of a nearby building just down the hall from the guards’ quarters, the two National Guard-sponsored drivers reflected on the magnitude of what they had just experienced.

“I was just nervous,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I get real nervous around appearances, but this one was real heavy. There’s a lot of responsibility, and that was definitely the case for this.”

Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last several years of his career associated with one military branch or another. First it was the Navy, which sponsored his JR Motorsports team; now it’s the National Guard, which he picked up when he signed with Hendrick Motorsports.

Drivers do appearances on behalf of their sponsors all the time. But this one, Earnhardt Jr. said, filled him with excitement and anticipation as he went to bed the previous night.

“I tell people all the time it’s so much different than trying to sell a product off the shelf,” he said. “The military is a career choice, it’s a commitment, and you’re trying to convince someone to look into it. When you go to appearances with the Guard like we’re doing today, you definitely see that firsthand. It’s more tangible.”

It wasn’t always that way. Earnhardt Jr. said he was “naïve” when he worked with the Navy, and that he was so young he didn’t feel completely worthy of the responsibility.

As he has matured, Earnhardt Jr. has accepted the burden of trying to convince young men and women to serve their country.

But when he stood before the tomb and watched the Changing of the Guard ceremony prior to the wreath-laying, he said it was “pretty overwhelming.”

“Real emotional, I guess,” he said. “The structure of the guard itself at the tomb is quite impressive. That makes the weight of the situation obvious to you.”

Like Earnhardt Jr., Gordon had never visited Arlington before and said he regretted not doing so earlier.

“This is something I think every American should experience,” Gordon said. “The peace, the security that we feel in the safety of our country is because of the men and women here at Arlington.”

Arlington, which holds the remains of soldiers dating back to the Civil War, is still very much an active cemetery. It has 27-30 burials per day and had 6,900 last year; this year, the number will top 7,000.

The cemetery’s rolling hills stretch as far as the eye can see, all lined with rows and rows of precisely placed white headstones. The expanse of the place is enough to humble any visitor.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier itself contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from several wars and is symbolic of all those killed in wars whose bodies were never recovered. Four million people per year visit the cemetery, and nearly all of them stop at the Tomb of the Unknowns to watch the changing of the guard.

Gordon stood alongside Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. as they watched the ceremony from the top of the nearby steps, with the soldiers snapping their weapons and clicking their heels together in the most structured of ceremonies.

“That blew my mind,” Gordon said. “To watch it, just the way they flip the guns and every movement being perfect. I’m sure they find their own flaws, but I couldn’t find any. You could just tell they are representing something that is very important.”

And when it was time for his turn to approach the tomb and lay the wreath, Gordon said his mind was flooded with thoughts of how great an honor he was receiving.

“What am I doing here? How did I get this opportunity? What did I do to deserve this?” he said, recalling his thoughts. “It’s very overwhelming and you’re just very honored to put your hands on that wreath. You feel a tremendous amount of pride.”

Gordon’s work with the National Guard this season has given him an entirely new perspective on the significance of the military – not that he didn’t appreciate it before, he said, but he acknowledged he had “maybe taken it a little bit for granted.”

“I don’t know if you really understand the steps that are taken, especially with the Guard and what they do…” he said. “That’s been a real eye-opening experience for me.”

The same might be said for anyone who visits Arlington.

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