Goodwill Tour Update: It’s also a diplomatic corps

The Indy 500 centennial Tour is a 10-day goodwill trip to Europe and the Middle East with the goal of boosting the morale of more than 10,000 service men and women the group will meet. The team, which includes Indianapolis 500 winners Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Jr. plus Indy 500 veterans Sarah Fisher, Davey Hamilton, Larry Foyt and Firestone Indy Lights race winner Martin Plowman, will give motivational talks and participate in autograph and Q & A sessions, meet and greets and photo opportunities.

Goodwill Tour Day 2 in Germany (Part 1)
Day 2 takes the Centennial Troop Tour to Ramstein Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany.

Goodwill Tour Day 2 in Germany (Part 2)

Goodwill tour: Racing the jets at Incirlik

TSgt. Regina Page of the 39th Air Base Wing by way of Virginia Beach, Va., noticed the fire truck and ambulance as her bus approached where the Indy Racing Experience two-seater was staged at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

“That’s not a good sign, is it?" she said, though quickly persuaded that it’s only a precaution. “OK, I’m good with it. I’m super excited and the car looks totally awesome."

Page was among 11 soldiers at the base — five miles east of Adana, Turkey's fifth largest city, and 35 miles from the Mediterranean Sea – who were nominated by their squadron commanders as “unsung heroes" to get a ride from Mario Andretti on the serpentine circuit about 200 meters from the main runway. Additionally, 30 riders, including two Turkish Air Force members, were selected through a drawing in December.

Page was No. 5 on the ride list, picking at her fingernails as Nos. 2 and 3 exited the car with shouts of “Yes, that was so cool!" No. 1, Airman Marcus Pace of Macon, Ga., was a little in a daze on the cool but sunny morning: “I’m going to go sit down. I didn’t know the car had that much power."

Soon, Page was assisted with the helmet, climbed into the waiting car (Andretti saying, “Let’s go, time is money") and sooner than you can pronounce Incirlik they were off. They returned, with Page giving a thumbs-up sign.

“I’m still alive; it didn’t turn over," Page said after catching her breath. “My heart is racing. That was super awesome and I’m so glad my squadron nominated me to come here and do this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

That’s what Andretti, who commandeered the wheel of buses at two previous stops on the tour for brief periods, wanted to hear.

“I want to give them all rides they’ll remember," he said. “I’m having fun. We can give a taste of Indy."

Three days earlier, while many of the tour participants were visiting the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, select service men and women were receiving rides in the two-seater at the Bahrain International Circuit as part of a family day. Somewhat short-handed, the flight crew of the KC-135 that is the host airplane for the tour jumped in to be the pit crew for the Indy Racing Experience.

“We went out there originally to see the car and the circuit, but there was such a big crowd that we jumped in and started working with them," said Air Force Maj. James Muniz, pilot of the KC-135. “They were thanking us but we were all saying we would have paid to get to do it just to be around all the excitement."

Goodwill tour: It's also a diplomatic corps

The presentation of an Indy 500 Centennial Tour autographed helmet to the president of Cukurova University during a visit by tour participants to the 35,000-student campus on the outskirts of Adana could go a long way in lessening tensions between the United States and Turkey.

Strange but true in a country where the Indianapolis 500’s notoriety and heritage lags Formula One's year-round interest. But the presentation and the fact tour participants ventured to campus near the majestic Tauras Mountains is perceived as a sincere goodwill gesture by the Americans (Martin Plowman, a Brit, remained behind at Incirlik Air Base) in the eyes of the media, which was heavily represent.

Mario Andretti, both an Indy 500 champion and F1 World Driving Champion, presented university president Dr. Alper Akinoglu the helmet following a panel Q&A led by Jack Arute.

“I’m over 60 so it’s too late to start a racing career, but my daughter would like to," said Akinoglu, who put on the helmet to applause and laughter. “It’s very exciting for us to have such distinguished guests here and it’s important for our students to have social and cultural figures of note here to motivate them."

The U.S. State Department owes Armed Forces Entertainment, Morale Entertainment Foundation and the tour participants big time.

Jan. 18: Good thing for point-and-shoot cameras

Cameron Haven shed 35 pounds on one leg of the Indy 500 Centennial Tour. All she had to do was unshackle the IBA after the C-130 transport landed at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. That’s Individual Body Armor – one of a myriad of military acronyms tour participants have come across.

At the base — the logistical hub for coalition forces in Iraq (about 40 miles north of Baghdad) – the group visited DFAC (Dining Facility instead mess or chow hall) and spent a few hours at the DVQ (Distinguished Visitors Quarters). In fact, Haven should receive her own acronym – ITG (IZOD Trophy Girl). She and Sarah Fisher already received major props for donning the Kevlar flak jacket and helmet for portions of the flight on the air highway between Bahrain and Iraq.

Haven, who will return for another season of making sure she’s photogenic in the IZOD firesuit in Victory Circle, has held her own with the drivers in the number of autographs and photographs requested at tour stops in three countries and the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln at sea. Enlisted men break a shy smile and jab each other in the ribs like high schoolers, which isn’t far off (the average age on the USS Abraham Lincoln is 20).

"The tour has been one of the best experiences of my life," she says. "It's amazing that we're here to thank them for what they're doing and they're telling us we've made their month, that we've really made a difference by coming out to see them. They have great work ethics and show a lot of passion for their country.

"It makes me really proud to be an American and to see these guys, shake their hands, sign an autograph or take a picture with them."

Jan. 17: Plowman gets buzzed on carrier

Martin Plowman would have been satisfied with a flat top in honor of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, but fellow tour participant Jack Arute stirred the crowd into chanting "Low tide, low tide."

So the top came off the mop on Plowman's head, tumbling onto the hanger bay deck of the massive ship during the group's 24-hour visit.

"These things happen," Plowman says to a Petty Officer who 20 minutes earlier had challenged him to a road racing game on PlayStation. "All I have to say is be careful when your on the flight deck. You never know when a plane is going to start its jet engine and singe your hair."

Actually, Plowman had promised to have his head shaved as incentive for individuals to contribute to two organizations that assist wounded warriors and their families.

"It was a lot of fun but in all seriousness this was for a good cause," he said. "It was a promise I made and I wanted to keep it."

Jan. 15: Two little words mean a lot

A home-made sign in the corner of a window of the ICU at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center sums up the Indy 500 Centennial Tour: Two small words mean a lot. Thank you.

"This medicine is better than the pharmacy," Air Force Lt. Col.Rich Ciao of San Francisco says about tour participants meeting of the wounded warriors at the facility near Ramstein Air Base in Germany. "This pharmacy doesn't cost anything and isn't dependent on chemicals. It comes from the heart."

The 80-bed medical center – the largest military hospital outside of the continental United States that serves as the nearest treatment center for wounded soldiers coming from Iraq and Afghanistan — is staffed by about 2,700 and has 54 outpatients clinics.

Davey Hamilton strikes up a conversation with an Airman First Class whose ankle was shattered while deploying a robot to investigate a potential roadside explosive device. He relates the wild ride in 2001 at Texas Motor Speedway that nearly cost him both legs. With surgeons' skills and 21 operations later, Hamilton is not only walking but competing in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Earlier in the day, tour participants lined the path of medics carrying stretcher-bound and wheelchair wounded to a C-17 for transport to the States as a show of honor and respect. The received V signs and thumbs-up signs from those who were able.

"It takes your breath away at first," Hamilton says. "I could relate to the young man with the ankle injury. I was in my prime and had a lot of great things going at that time, and to have it taken away in an instant is definitely a life-changing experience. I know what it takes to come back and I see that in them — the willpower and dedication.

"The reason the Indy 500 continues is because of the freedom we have, and these men and women are making sacrifices for us to continue to be free. Thank you doesn't seem enough."

Jan. 14: Warm welcome from the commander

Brig. Gen. Mark Dillon apologies for the delay tour participants had deplaning the KC-135 in the wee hours at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. "Vice president Biden is kind of a frequent flier here," the base commander says.

The group had to wait until Air Force 2 was wheels up. No worries, really. Dillon, a native of Bemidji, Minn., welcomed the group on the first stop of it tour. Mario Andretti, on behalf of everyone, presented the General with an Indy 500 Centennial Tour helmet autographed by all the drivers. He reciprocated by handing out an 86th Airlift Wing coin and signed the Indy 500 Centennial Tour banner.

"It means so much to us executing the mission in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world for folks back home in the States — not only average citizen but famous Americans like these great race car drivers — to come here and support our efforts," Dillon says.

Participants lower the boom

Master Sgt. Max Morkin invites members of the traveling party to get a close-up view of how mid-air refueling is accomplished from his perspective in the tail of the KC-135 Stratotanker during the multi-hour flight to Germany to commence the tour. He's been at it for 13 years, logged thousands of hours of flight time and "more than I can remember" refueling missions of U.S. military aircraft.

Click it: A few lessons from the man in the know

Mario Andretti descends the stairs and lies chest-down next to Morkin, who provides a brief tutorial of the joystick that controls many functions of the boom. It reminds Andretti of an adventure in 1986.

"I was invited to speak to a Wing Commanders’ Conference in Homestead (Fla.)," he recalls. "So we set it up that the day after the race in Phoenix we went to Luke Air Force Base. I was in one F-16 while there was another one next to us for the trip. Our call letters were Racer 1 and Racer 2. It was a long flight to Florida and we did a mid-air refueling over Texas, which was very interesting how involved it all is.

"Soon afterward, the pilot said ‘Mario, it’s all yours. Do whatever you want. You have four minutes of afterburner.’ We turned the transponder off and were all over the sky. However, the radar center could still pick us up and asked, ‘Are you boys having fun up there?’ It was the most phenomenal experience of my life.

"The best part was speaking to all the commanders gathered at the conference. The camaraderie that exists, but also the stories they were telling me. One in particular said, ‘Mario, remember (the Formula One race) in 1978 in Holland there was a big banner on the side of a hill that said Go, Go, Mario with the American flag. I was stationed in Germany at the time and a bunch of us guys went up there to cheer you on.’ That was so touching.

"Every experience that I’ve ever had with the military has been one that I’ll never forget. I just have so much appreciation for the discipline, the quality of individual that is in the military. Every opportunity I get I embrace it to be able to visit with them."

Jan. 13: 'It is what it is' is the catchphrase of this trip

Mike Whalen has a phone pressed to one ear and twirls the remnants of a well-worked cigar in the other. That's standard operating procedure for the main logistics man of Morale Entertainment — the organization that is producing the Indy 500 Centennial Tour in conjunction with Armed Forces Entertainment.

He answers to "Pappa Bear," "Colonel," "Hey, you," and occasionally Mike. A Notre Dame man (you can tell by his ubiquitous ND cap), a Marine in his younger days and a network TV executive in his corporate days, experience from both career paths converge to assist in current days as his most common phrase is "It is what it is," which is delivered with the authority as if from the Book of Proverbs.

That flexibility comes in handy on cross-continent trips such as this as appointments with tour participants in Manhattan at The Early Show on CBS, Fox & Friends and Wake Up with Al on The Weather Channel were swept away with the Nor'easter and departure from Indianapolis was delayed a few hours.

"It is what it is," Whalen says again as the 25-member group reconvenes for the double-digit-hour flight to Ramstein Air Base — a North Atlantic Treaty Organization installation that serves as headquarters for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. The first program on the schedule is visiting with wounded soldiers at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which is the nearest treatment center for wounded coming from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"That will be a gut-check," says Whalen, a veteran of more than a half-dozen such tours. "It will be sobering but everyone will come away encouraged by their attitudes. It will give everyone a different perspective."

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