CONCORD, N.C. - Honoring the military and those who served will be the focus at the Coca-Cola 600 this Memorial Day weekend.
Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North will receive the Stonewall Jackson Award presented annually by Charlotte Motor Speedway. Track general manager Marcus Smith said North is deserving of the award because of his decades of service.
North will have a busy Sunday at the track. He'll give a speech during pre-race ceremonies, sign autographs for members of the military at The Speedway Club and take part in a "Welcome Home the Troops" luncheon at the nearby zMax Dragway.
North served 22 years as a Marine officer and earned several combat honors, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds in action.
He also came to national prominence in the 1980s for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, when Reagan administration officials secretly arranged the sale of weapons to Iran to help finance the Central American rebels, bypassing Congressional restrictions. A jury convicted North of three felonies for his role, all which were overturned by an appeals court.
North later became a political commentator and best-selling author.
"Active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines and veterans of all services are America's heroes," North said. "They put themselves at risk, forfeit the comforts of home and absent themselves from loved ones to protect us and offer others the hope of freedom."
The Stonewall Jackson Award has been presented each year since 1992. Past recipients have included Gen. Gary Luck (USA), Gen. James Livingston (USMC) and last year's winner, Purple Heart Homes co-founder Dale Beatty.
The No. 48 Chevrolet of Sprint Cup points leader Jimmie Johnson will carry a patriotic paint scheme during NASCAR's longest race. Johnson said his grandparents and father served in the military.
"So it's part of the life I knew and grew up in, that environment," he said. "Happy to carry the colors on our car."
Later Thursday, NASCAR and Goodyear announced an initiative where the words "Support Our Troops" will be placed on each tire used during Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR president Mike Helton said the sport's support and respect for the military "is in our DNA."
Driver Kevin Harvick held an autograph session Thursday at nearby Fort Bragg. Matt Kenseth, who leads the series with three victories, said the link between the military and NASCAR was forged long ago and has gotten stronger.
"I think it's pretty obvious without the military and without all the sacrifices they make and all they do, we wouldn't have the freedom to go out and race each and every weekend," he said.
NASCAR begins a six-week effort to celebrate the U.S. Armed Forces called "NASCAR: An American Salute." The campaign will run through the July 4 weekend and allow race teams, drivers, sponsors and fans to honor the military.
Aric Almirola, who was born on an Air Force base, is glad to participate.
"People can sometimes forget about all they sacrifice for us to live our daily lives," he said.