TAMPA — Every weekend during racing season, NASCAR driver Tony Stewart deals with the pressure of going around a track very fast.
Stewart got a taste of a different degree of pressure Tuesday afternoon at MacDill Air Force Base when he took a spin on a console that simulates the delicate operation of mid-air refueling.
“You are trying to push a needle through a haystack and see how intense it is and the condition these guys have to go through,” Stewart said, describing his turn at the BOWST simulator used to help train those who operate the boom on the KC-135 aerial refueling jet.
“To think there is only a three-man crew and two of them are on the front of the plane, and one guy is laying on his stomach in the back of the plane, running the nozzle ... you can tell that takes a lot of precision to do that. We’re not talking about scratching a body panel. You’re talking about scratching a multi-million dollar airplane. So definitely that’s a lot of pressure for the guy that runs the nozzle.”
Stewart, fellow driver Kyle Larson and Joie Chitwood III, Daytona International Speedway president, were at MacDill on Tuesday to kick off the annual USO tour of military bases.
“This is something we wish we got to do more often,” said Stewart, a three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. “Without these men and women we wouldn’t get the chance to do what we do every weekend.”
Larson, the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, agreed that “without these men and women we would not have the freedom to do what we do.”
Chitwood, a Tampa native, said that there is a natural synergy between NASCAR and the military — including the Thunderbirds Air Force aerobatic team.
“I’m not sure any other sports property enjoys the same relationship with the military,” he said. “There is usually a military element at every single event. For us at Daytona, we have a relationship with the Thunderbirds. So meeting airmen on the tarmac, or signing autographs shows you what a great relationship NASCAR has with the military.”
Aside from the simulator, the NASCAR contingent witnessed a military dog exhibition and got to tour a KC-135 that rolled off the assembly line in 1962.
“It was really great to meet Tony,” said Sr. Airman Rowdy Moore, 25, a KC-135 electrician and flight crew chief. “I’m a big NASCAR fan.”
For Tech. Sgt. Timothy Coleman, 30, his wife Brigett, 30, and their children Faythe, 5, Cody, 3 and Sadie, 1, meeting the drivers “was awesome.”
The Colemans were among about 300 fans who came out to Sea Scapes, a base restaurant, to get autographs and have pictures taken with the drivers.
“We watch the races every weekend,” said Coleman, an aircraft maintainer with the 6th Air Mobility Wing. “So it is nice for them to be able to meet the people they look up to.”
Brigett Coleman said she appreciated the drivers taking time out to meet the troops and their families.
“For them to come out and spend time with us and sign my little girl’s pink pony, well that is just amazing to know that they care so much,” she said.