SPARTA, Ky. - Persistent rain showers did little to dampen the spirits and excitement of a group of teens at the Kentucky Speedway this past weekend. The young men and women are current and former cadets with the National Guard Youth Challenge programs. They were given a full-access pass to all NASCAR had to offer at this year's Quaker State 400 race at the track in Sparta, Ky.
As part of the National Guard Youth Foundation - the national nonprofit that supports Challenge - and the Challenge program's relationship with Hendrick Motorsports, several cadets, foundation officials and members of the National Guard were invited to the track to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. drive the number 88 Chevrolet with a special National Guard Youth Foundation logo on his car.
"We are honored and deeply appreciate the opportunity to partner with Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to raise awareness of the Challenge program," said Gail Dady, National Guard Youth Foundation Board of Directors President. "The Hendrick Motorsports team went to an extraordinary level to make this an unforgettable experience for the cadets."
The excitement began Friday morning with a press conference announcing the sponsorship and highlighting the Challenge programs. Rome Meade, a graduate of the Appalachian Challenge Academy in Harlan, Ky., sat with Dady, Earnhardt Jr., and Kentucky's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Edward W. Tonini in the press room at the track for the interaction with media. Meade said he was proud to have Earnhardt drive for the program, acknowledging that many more people will know about the program after the race.
In between the rain drops, Meade and his fellow cadets were treated to garage tours, a meet and greet with Earnhardt, Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports and also University of Kentucky Basketball coach John Calipari.
During the meet and greet, Earnhardt told the cadets and the crowd that relationship he has had with the National Guard has been one he has had a lot of un with and takes very seriously. He said he was honored to drive his car with the foundation logo in the race and remains excited to be a part of the program.
"This is a great opportunity for us to tell more people about the Youth Foundation," he said. "What it's about, what it does, what it entails and how many kids' lives it's helped turned around, and the effect it's had on the communities."
Although Earnhardt didn't drive the car into victory lane on Sunday, the clouds did part long enough for the cadets to enjoy the full race a day late. They were still trackside presenting the colors for the pre-race festivities and had the time to walk pit road and take some memorable snapshots with their favorite cars. The cadets eventually found a front and center seat for the race in a suite above the start/finish line of the track.
"I never expected to be at my first NASCAR race," said New Orleans native, Jeremy Suhor, a cadet at the Louisiana Youth Challenge Program. "I've had a lot of great opportunities since I've been in Challenge."
"The weekend has been awesome," said Meade. "It's one of the best experiences of my life."