NASCAR honors fallen soldiers

The name “Sgt. Bradley” whipped around Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday in front of thousands of racing fans. It was a gesture that Bradley’s father found humbling.

He said his son would have felt the same way.

Mark A. Bradley, a U.S. Marine, was one of 50 fallen soldiers honored by NASCAR and its racing teams at the Coca-Cola 600 this year. Their names, often recognized only by close friends and family, replaced the names of drivers known worldwide.

Bradley’s name stretched across the top of the windshield of Ryan Newman’s No. 31 car.

“I was flabbergasted, humbled,” Mark’s father, Jack, said of learning about the recognition.

NASCAR and the Charlotte speedway have long honored military members and their families. Pre-race festivities Sunday included ground exercises from Fort Bragg troops and a rappelling demonstration from hovering Black Hawk helicopters.

Scott Cooper, spokesman for the speedway, said some 6,000 active military men and women and their family members attended the race.

“This is our opportunity to give the active duty service men and women and veterans a big bear hug,” Cooper said.

This year’s embrace included decorating each car with names such as U.S. Army Cpl. Steven Koch, who died in Afghanistan in 2008, and Amy Chief Warrant Officer 2 Stanley Harriman, who died in 2002 as the first Operation Enduring Freedom casualty from Fort Bragg. Names even decorated the pace cars.

Hope for the Warriors, a group that helps service members transition to civilian life and families cope with the loss of loved ones, recommended Mark Bradley for the honor.

The nonprofit, founded in Jacksonville, had worked with Newman in the past, said spokeswoman Anne Barnwell.

Mark Bradley attended Hope for the Warriors’ inaugural 5K race in 2006, Barnwell said. He was killed five years later.

Bradley said his son was on patrol tracking Taliban in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED on June 3, 2011. He died 13 days later. He was 25.

Mark Bradley joined the Marines partly because of the group’s discipline, said Bradley, who retired from the Air Force and now works for a Navy shipyard in Mississippi. Mark Bradley spent seven months in Iraq and did three noncombat tours before landing in Afghanistan.

Before the race Sunday, Bradley saw Mark’s name written on the top of Newman’s windshield.

The emotions, he said, began pouring back. “It was tough to keep a straight face,” he said. “It was such a nice tribute.”

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