FORT WORTH — When planning any military mission, there are countless considerations to take.
Several meetings and coordinated efforts between many different entities have to be made to support one another just to accomplish one goal.
Surprising a soldier with a visit with one of his heroes takes the same approach.
CNN’s Headline News and Speedway Children’s Charities were looking to highlight NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s “Smoke Show,” which takes place annually at Texas Motor Speedway.
At first, the plan was to invite Morning Express anchor Robin Meade to participate at the track. She instead brought up the idea to have a soldier from Fort Hood be given the opportunity so many don’t get. As this filtered through many channels to find a choice, one particular soldier who follows NASCAR as much as the most avid fan came to mind at III Corps headquarters.
Through several “closed door” meetings and quiet phone calls, efforts were coordinated between commands and sections to ensure Staff Sgt. Jason Thompson of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command, would be able to attend.
Besides being a great Tony Stewart and race fan, Thompson also is the sole custody parent of two children with special needs. He works tirelessly for the Army and his unit day in and day out, but before first formation and after last formation, he works even harder taking care of his sons.
On the morning of Aug. 14 at the first formation of the day, a Headline News cameraman showed up and Thompson was called up to stand alongside his first sergeant, who then read off the personal invitation on behalf of the charity and Texas Motor Speedway.
“I knew something was up because everyone was acting really weird the last couple of days, but I had know idea what was going on,” Thompson said after the formation.
Col. Mark Simerly, 4th Sustainment Brigade commander, was as elated to shake Thompson’s hand after formation and congratulate him on being selected as Thompson was to hear the news.
“This is just really great for him and I’m appreciative of everyone’s help in pulling this off,” said Simerly.
Aaron Brodie of Headline News planned to shadow Thompson all day so he could get a sense of what a day in his life was like.
Brodie said many times how impressed he was with Thompson’s ability to maintain the lifestyle that a soldier faces daily while handling the additional responsibilities he’s facing day in and day out.
Arrangements were made for Thompson to stay at a hotel across the street from Texas Motor Speedway. They were also made so the children’s childcare specialist and her family would be able to stay.
But with so much planning and many moving pieces, things can go wrong. That night, massive thunderstorms rolled through the Fort Worth area, soaking the racetracks. The next morning, many calls were made to figure out what to do. Thompson was unaware that Tony Stewart was waiting nearby and a full day of racing was set to take place.
A slight bump to the schedule was not a big deal, but a wet race track could prove to be very dangerous. The Texas Motor Speedway pulled out all the stops to make sure the event got going. They put out their jet blower trucks and started working on the track as soon as the weather broke about 11 a.m.
By then, Thompson had been kept at bay long enough and it was time to get the day’s events started. Meeting up at the speedway’s media center were other “Smoke Show” participants.
“I’m a bit nervous to be honest,” said Tony Stewart when briefing the group in the room before Thompson came in.
When time came for Thompson to meet Stewart, the room became hushed. Stewart stood with a fire suit in hand, patiently waiting. Thompson lit up when he spotted Stewart standing in the room. It didn’t take but a few seconds for a generous handshake with some excited banter to be exchanged.
“I just want to be able to express to you how much gratitude I have, and respect, for what you do,” Stewart told Thompson. He then presented Thompson with his fire suit, personally hung a placard with Thompson’s name above his locker and talked with him about what was taking place that day.
“I really don’t know what to say,“ Thompson said. “It’s just really cool that anyone could pull this off and I don’t know how I’m anymore deserving than any other soldier serving.”
After a couple of safety classes discussing the speed of the cars they would be driving and the rules, it was not too long until the drivers were headed out to the track to get behind the wheel.
Geared up with a few last minute instructions, Thompson climbed into the car along with a race instructor and off they went for 10 “hot laps” around one of the fastest motor speedways in the country.
“I think I did pretty good,” he said. “The instructor kept telling me to level it off because I wanted to go faster.”
After participants got their 10 laps in around the track, it was now “Smoke’s” turn to cut loose. Each driver rode shotgun with Stewart for three full laps at NASCAR “race speed.”
“That was definitely a lot faster,” Thompson said. “And a lot louder.”