Feature Search

Air Force recruits during Race Week at Bristol

  • Published
  • By Randy Martin
  • Air Force Recruiting Service

One of NASCAR’s most famous venues became a focal point for Air Force recruiting Sept 16 - 18, 2021. Recruiters based in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas converged on Bristol Motor Speedway, in Bristol, Tennessee, with resources to engage and inspire potential recruits.

It all started with a long haul.

Two black pickup trucks brought trailers to BMS bearing Air Force insignia with a mobile recruiting asset which looks like and is called “The Hangar” on Wednesday ahead of three nights of racing. One of the operators, up from San Antonio, said his crew spent three hours erecting the shining replica of an iconic air field maintenance bay. 

With space for dozens to stand in the shade on a hot day, The Hangar features three interactive stations. It was one of several dozen attractions splayed out over asphalt lots beneath and surrounding BMS. The stations are designed to build awareness of Air Force career opportunities.

Ahead of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night’s races thousands of young and older race fans passed by The Hangar. Contracted Air Force “brand ambassadors” registered wrist banded guests while recruiters worked the crowd to answer questions about careers and benefits of becoming an Airman.

Much like a theme park attraction guests formed lines anxious to sample an Air Force experience.

“Metrics from every race shows that 13 percent of foot traffic turns to leads,” said Master Sgt. Shawn Emmerling, a member of AFRS’s National Events Marketing branch. Emmerling’s team travels throughout the U.S. year-round helping local recruiters arrange events that feature national-level assets. “This is the engage aspect of what we do in AFRS.” 

Nearby a fabrication station allowed users to repair a hydraulic leak on an airplane. A tire change station tested physical skills with “players” loosening and tightening lug nuts on an actual tire. A third station allowed up to four people at a time to operate a computer-generated boom during a virtual reality in-flight refueling mission. For each event, performance was timed and scored for a fun and educational experience.

There was no letup on Saturday as the biggest of the three nighttime races neared.

A noncommissioned officer stepped in front of The Hangar. With a few commands 14 new Airmen and one Guardian, all in blue T-shirts, formed two parallel lines facing into the setting sun where throngs of family members and curious passersby watched.

Lt. Col. Bryan Ewing, 332nd Recruiting Squadron commander, responsible for Air Force recruitment in the region, stepped to the front of the formation, raised his right hand and led the oath of enlistment while 15 new service men and women repeated each word in unison.

A local TV reporter captured their life-changing event as it unfolded while someone else in the crowd streamed the happening live for a social media audience.

“We wanted the biggest outreach possible,” said Staff Sgt. Luke Motley, an enlisted accessions recruiter assigned to the 332nd Recruiting Squadron, Bristol, Tennessee. Motley arranged for media coverage of the ceremony as well as the live stream. He also worked with the BMS events manager in order to build a mutually beneficial relationship between the track and the Air Force. “I asked them, what can we do for you?”

Motley said he hopes the cooperation will lead to an even better relationship with the community.

Following the ceremony, Erik Jones, driver of the Air Force-sponsored, No. 43 car dropped in to speak to the new enlistees. He thanked the men and women for their decision to serve in the Air Force and Space Force. Then he answered questions from fans.

He said that if he were in the Air Force that he would want to be a fighter pilot since driving a racecar is similar. Jones said that his favorite Air Force experience, since joining his team, has involved learning about the Tuskegee Airmen. The car he piloted to an 8th place finish later that night pays tribute to the famed African American pilots known as “Red Tails” who broke through racial barriers and helped secure an allied victory over Germany during World War II.

As the sun set, crowds packed BMS for its NASCAR Cup Series race. Thousands stood in honor of recently fallen service members and then joined a children’s choir to sing the National Anthem.

“It’s phenomenal,” Ewing said. “You can’t ask for a better location. They really show their appreciation.”

As the sun disappeared over a hill that aimed higher, just over the horizon, a C-130 slowly approached the coliseum and then passed directly overhead. The crowd cheered and then engines roared to life.

AFRS has had a NASCAR partnership since 2000. In 2019, the partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports resulted in 716 million media impressions valued at nearly $17 million, well above the Air Force’s investment.