Earnhardts final Coca-Cola 600 shared with family of fallen soldier

The McClamrock family lost a son seven years ago, but got a special opportunity to honor his legacy the night before Memorial Day

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Dale Earnhardt Jr. poses for a photograph with the McClamrock family on pitt road before the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

CHARLOTTE — Susan McClamrock originally decided that, rather than putting together a big event for Memorial Day, her family would spend the holiday together, honoring fallen soldiers on a very difficult day.Seven years earlier, the McClamrock family lost a soldier, son, brother and a husband. Private First Class James McClamrock, 22, was killed on Sept. 7, 2010 at a military base near the city of Tuz Khormato, about 130 miles north of Baghdad, when an Iraqi soldier opened fire.”I had just decided as the mom, the matriarch of the family, that this Memorial Day — going on seven years this year — we were going to be quiet,” Susan explained. “We were going to grill together at the house, go to James’ grave like we usually do to spend the moment in reflection and then just be with each other.”Well, that’s the way it started off.”A text from Leigh Walthers, a Special Investigations Unit field investigator at Nationwide in N.C., informed Susan that her plans would change. James’ name was going to be on the front windshield of a car in the Coca-Cola 600.And not just any car — James’ name was going to be on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 machine in his final Coca-Cola 600.”This one’s especially huge because we’ve got the No. 1 race car driver, like everybody wants Dale Jr. because of his dad’s legacy and his own legacy,” Susan said. “And this is his last 600! If I was Dale Jr., I’d probably want my name on my last 600 [car]. This is where he wants to win. This is his hometown.”Instead, he’s sharing that day with us. … It’s just a sweet thing.”Each car during the 600 featured a different soldier’s name as part of “600 Miles of Remembrance,” NASCAR’s tribute to those that lost their lives serving our country. For Earnhardt, having a close geographical connection made it all the more special.”He is from Huntersville and its real meaningful for all the drivers and the teams,” Earnhardt, a Kannapolis, N.C. native, said. “We get to meet the family of the individual and represent that person and their family throughout the race and the race weekend. It is just a great opportunity, I think, to get to know one of these guys. …”All the drivers take a little bit of a responsibility to try to win the race and take that name to Victory Lane. That is a little added pressure in a good way.”Earnhardt wasn’t able to steer the No. 88 car into Victory Lane, but still came away with a respectable 10th-place finish. While the result is important for the driver, it was more about the experience and getting a chance to honor their son in a unique way.Nationwide not only took the McClamrock family out to the race on Sunday, but gave them a true Junior experience. After touring the Hendrick Motorsports shop on Saturday, the 13-person unit was given the keys to Dirty Mo Acres, Earnhardt’s property with a western feel and NASCAR graveyard.”They have pulled out all the bells and whistles for our family,” Susan said. “I was just figuring we would come to the race at 6 o’clock, watch Dale race and that would be it. But no. They are so comforting and compassionate.”It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re doing you a favor, so whatever.’ That has been just exceptional.”James never met a stranger. He was always outgoing and made sure everyone felt welcome, regardless of who they were. He was raised that way and his mother was still beaming from ear to ear describing her son the day before Memorial Day.”Speaking as a soldier mom of someone who died on a battlefield 7,000 miles from here who had no parents there — no mom to love him or father to say, ‘It’s OK, son,’ — you never want him to be forgotten,” Susan said, fighting back tears. “Because when we forget and people stop talking and the honors stop coming, he will truly die.”In order to preserve the memory of his life, Susan and Mark have an entire room devoted to his accomplishments and mementoes from his life. One of the newest additions to that room will be a Lionel diecast of an exact replica from the Coca-Cola 600 car Nationwide had specially made for the family.Though they were admittedly never NASCAR fans, Susan and the family were completely wrapped up in the race, the atmosphere and the hospitality shown by Nationwide. However, Susan couldn’t help but be reminded of what’s still taking place overseas with all of the active soldiers at the track.”There are people fighting right now. Right now! There are people dying and getting injured,” Susan said. “We’re thinking about what type of food are we going to get? James, on the day he died probably had an MRE for breakfast, probably didn’t eat during the day on a terrorist mission, drank some water out his Camelbak, sat down and was killed by an insurgent with seven bullets to his body.”While most forget about the sacrifices of our soldiers overseas, Susan simply can’t.”I think about what did you think when you were dying?” she explained. “What did you think when your best friend was holding you and trying to do everything he could to keep him alive and get him to the airbase. Once they got him in the ambulance, he just said, ‘Pray for me.’ Those were his last words.”The McClamrock family still does. And every American should on Memorial Day for the soldiers that fight for their freedom every single day.