NASCAR star brings Vietnam vet 'full circle'
Retired Master Sgt. Ed Brodey says his life came full circle when he met NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon, who pilots the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet sponsored by the company that employed Brodey’s father, a Delaware National Guardsman who died while Brodey was a young boy.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Army News Service, March 13, 2009) - Retired Master Sgt. Ed Brodey's military and racing life came full circle when he met NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon at Daytona International Speedway prior to the 51st running of the Daytona 500.
"When I shook his hand, I had a Special Forces belt buckle in my hand that I wanted to give to him," Brodey said. "He told me that the National Guard was one of his sponsors, and I told him there are a lot of guys in Special Forces who pull for him.
"It was great to represent the U.S. Army in that capacity, and meeting a champion like Jeff Gordon, you can't ask for anything better than that," Brodey said. "The Army has always been about people. It's not about machinery, it's about people."
National Guard 'camp' at 11
Brodey's military upbringing partially evolved from his father's job in a factory that later produced the paint scheme for Gordon's No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet and his Rainbow Warriors.
Following the death of his father, a Delaware National Guardsman who worked at the DuPont plant in Seifert, Brodey was invited to attend National Guard Camp in Bethany Beach.
"I got my Army start at the age of 11," he recalled. "When my dad died, his National Guard unit took me to National Guard Camp at the age of 11, 12 and 13. That's where I got my basic start with the military - my love for it, if you will.
"They did that as a favor to my dad. His death actually opened up a lot of doors for me."
Around the same time, Brodey began dabbling with race cars, another family tradition.
"I started out at the age of 12 or 13, working on stock cars for a guy by the name of Howard Davis in Seifert, Delaware," Brodey said. "His number was 3D, and we raced against Melvin Joseph, who built the Monster Mile at Dover."
Speaking of coming full circle, Joseph's hot rods journeyed from the back roads of Sussex County, Del., to the sandy shores of Daytona Beach, where in 1955 his cars won both the NASCAR Sportsman and Modified events. Four years later, Banjo Matthews drove one of Joseph's cars to a three-mile margin of victory in the first NASCAR Modified race on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
Fifty years later, Brodey met Gordon behind a tent inside the Daytona Fan Zone located just outside Turn 1 of the storied 2.5-mile tri-oval that annually plays host to the Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.
"NASCAR was big in the 1950s," Brodey said. "A lot of people don't realize it. They kind of looked at it as a hick sport."
That perception lingered well into the 1990s and still exists in many regions. Brodey, however, believes auto racing's family values are beyond reproach.
"The Army and racing basically has been my life," said Brodey, 62, who lives near Fort Bragg in Raeford, N.C. "I have a lot of respect for Jeff Gordon. I played a lot of football in my life, and I've lost a lot of respect for football and the way the players are.
"NASCAR drivers exhibit decency and have ethics. NASCAR doesn't put up with a lot of stuff, and that's another thing I like about NASCAR. That's what the country needs. It needs to have ethical leadership in role models, and Jeff personifies that."
Brodey joined the Delaware National Guard as a 17-year-old junior in high school. He enlisted with the Army during his senior year and went on active duty two days after graduating from Georgetown High.
Ia Drang Valley
After completing Basic Training at Fort Jackson, S.C., he joined the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. After completing helicopter maintenance school, he deployed to Vietnam from 1966 through '69.
"My jump school class replaced the dead in the Ia Drang Valley," said Brodey, who served as a pathfinder. "I was thrown out in March of 1969 because I had been there too long."
Upon return from Vietnam, Brodey reported to Fort Benning, Ga., where he served as a jump-school instructor. After winning a battle with cancer, he returned to train Special Forces troops in North Carolina.
"I never left," Brodey said. "I was sick for awhile. I was battling cancer. I told the doctor I would be back when I got sick again, but I've never been back."
Brodey's hankering for motor sports, however, did return. He builds go-karts in one of his two garages that resemble a Jeff Gordon shrine.
"Jeff brought me back to racing when he drove at Indianapolis and won the Brickyard 400 in the DuPont car," Brodey said of the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion’s historic victory in 1994. "I left my racing roots in 1959 or 60. My great uncle, Russell Snowburger, raced at Indianapolis. The Snowburgers had two captains with Rogers' Rangers, so I have a relationship with Rogers' Rangers."
Rogers' Rangers was an independent company of rangers attached to the British Army during the French and Indian War.
"Uncle Russ drove from 1927 until 1947," Brodey said. "In 15 Indianapolis 500s, he finished fifth twice, eighth twice, and he had a number of DNFs."
Brodey, who has never started nor finished a race, has a plan for his go-karts.
"I'm getting ready to race them," he said.
"He's prouder of his lawnmower than any of the go-karts," joked retired Lt. Col. Don Johnson, the founder of "Count U.S. In" who helped arrange Brodey's meet and greet with Gordon.
"Hey, don't laugh about lawnmower racing," Brodey shot back.
Strong ties to SF
Johnson helped arrange the meeting to reward Brodey for his military service.
"I'm a retired alumnus of his," Johnson said. "Everybody in Special Forces has been trained by Ed Brodey at one time or another. There were some before his time, but since his time, no one gets through without Ed Brodey's stamp."
Fountain Worldwide, the exclusive worldwide distributor for Fountain Powerboats, also played a role in Brodey's unforgettable day in Daytona.
"We have been trying to get Ed some face time with Jeff Gordon for about four or five years and we just haven't been able to pull it together," Johnson explained. "Not because of Jeff Gordon, but because of us - we're all over the place.
"Fountain Worldwide came through for us when Mark Wilson heard that it was for Special Forces. Reggie Fountain and Fountain Powerboats have always been strong supporters of Special Forces. All Special Forces have sunk at least one Fountain powerboat in their life."
"I know we saw one out there in the middle of Charleston Harbor," Brodey quipped.
"The SEALs have sunk more of them than Reggie can make," Johnson added with a laugh.
Completing full circle
It was a day for war hero grins and giggles at Daytona International Speedway, where Gordon made good for a Soldier who has proudly served his country.
Brodey thinks military sponsorship of race cars can only help recruiting and retention.
"It sure doesn't hurt," he said. "Yes, it helps. Again, it's related to an ethical sport, and with these ethical drivers, it shows legitimacy. What better sport would you want?"
In the Army, much like in racing, what goes around comes around. Thanks to Gordon, Brodey has come full circle. Now he hopes to return the favor.
"I would like to meet Ryan Newman and Mark Martin," Brodey said of current and former drivers of Army-sponsored cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. "I would like to get these guys to come to a place they've never seen before, that's not open to the public, and just give them a guided tour."