There she stood, with a bugle in her hand, a microphone in front of her and all of Charlotte Motor Speedway watching.
Staff Sgt. Nicole Daley wasn’t new to this. She’s been a trumpet player for 23 years and a solo bugler in the Army for about seven. She estimates she’s played taps 100 to 120 times.
So she went through the same routine as usual — she calls it "breathing mindfully."
Slow down your breaths.
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Keep them deep and consistent.
Hold a steady tempo.
The normal butterflies she gets went away, as they always do. Daley angled her bugle toward the microphone and, on this Sunday evening, ahead of the Coca-Cola 600, began to play taps.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky.
Daley grew up in Tampa, where she played taps at her grandfather’s funeral while still in high school. She went to college at the nearby University of South Florida, where she earned a bachelor of music degree in performance and a bachelor of science degree in music education.
Then came graduate school at Indiana University, where Daley added a master of music degree in trumpet performance to her resume. Then, while on her way to a trumpet competition, she heard about open auditions to play in the Army bands.
“I took the audition, they called up and said, ‘Yes, we want you in the Army,’” Daley said. “I got a few of the details, joined from there and, about six months later, I was at basic training.”
Bugle calls aren’t the only thing Daley does, but they come up frequently. A trumpet player has to be ready to play one at a moment’s notice.
As a member of the 82nd Airborne Division band, stationed at Fort Bragg, Daley has played all over. Last year, she even performed at a few D-Day ceremonies in France, with World War II veterans in attendance.
“Just to be in those places — to actually be on the beaches, to actually be at Pointe du Hoc, to actually be where all that history happened — that stood out a lot, as far as my military career,” she said.
When Fort Bragg offered Daley the opportunity to play at the 600, the only NASCAR race that features a playing of taps, she accepted immediately. She was ecstatic, as was her husband, Master Sgt. Ryan Malin. He was a member of the First Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment, who deployed on Christmas Day after the 9/11 attacks.
After he was out, Malin used the GI Bill to go to school for music studies and enter the Army bands. After a stint in Hawaii, he made his way to Fort Bragg. Now, he serves as a drummer in the 82nd band alongside his wife, whom he met when they were both stationed at Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, earlier in their careers.
Although he was still home at Fort Bragg on Sunday night, Malin made sure to find the channel and set an alarm to watch his wife on live TV. The rest of her family in Florida watched as well, as Daley — preceded by a presentation of colors, a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” and a 21-gun salute — performed.
“It’s super humbling to realize I’m the one playing taps," Daley said a few hours before she took the stage. “That is the signifier of the last honors for our fallen soldiers and airmen and Marines and sailors. As exciting as it is, it’s also very humbling and something I have to keep and take and hold.”
It was almost over now. As the crowd watched in silence and military members rendered salute, Daley held the final note before bringing the bugle call to an end.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Daley then lowered the instrument to her side, listened to the national anthem and exited the stage. She was back off to Fort Bragg. But she won’t forget this moment any time soon.