By Marianne Weaver
While most Patriot High School seniors were primping for their Junior-Senior Prom on April 28, their classmate, senior Jonathan Findley, was suiting up for his race at Hickory Motor Speedway in Newton, N.C., where many drivers, including Ned and Dale Jarrett, Ralph Earnhardt, Bobby Isaac and Dennis Setzer, raced early in their careers. And while the prom-goers were gathering to revel on the dance floor, Findley was racing around the track, promoting awareness of veterans’ issues.
Findley, an 18-year old development driver for the NASCAR Monster Energy team of BK Racing, has raced a late model in the NASCAR Whelen All-American series. At just 16 years old, he was the youngest driver to win a NASCAR track championship. The sponsor stickers on his car don’t reflect the typical brands underwriting teams. In fact, the most prominent logo covering the hood of his No. 4 car showcases a menacing eagle and the names of Armed Forces Motorsports and the company’s 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Vets on Track. The logo is also emblazoned across the chest of his race-day uniform.
“It is really cool to listen to former military people and [learn about] their life experiences,” said Findley. “I like to see the smiles on their faces when they see support for them.”
Supporting Those Who Serve
He credits his grandfather, John Findley, with both introducing him to racing and forging the connection with Armed Forces Motorsports. Through its nonprofit foundation, Vets On Track, the organization supports America’s veterans, first responders, and their families through race teams that help increase awareness about those who have served—and continue to serve—this country in uniform, regardless of whether they serve across the globe or on the streets of American hometowns.
Founded in 2013 by retired U.S. Marine Rick Ecker and his daughter Brittany, Vets on Track helps veterans and first responders in need by securing housing, furniture and other basic necessities.
“Our focus is to get folks’ lives back on track,” said Ecker, founder and Vets on Track CEO. The goal is to engage fans at local race tracks, so they get involved in helping to support veterans, both monetarily and through service hours. “We market to local communities through grassroots racing, so we have veteran racing teams all across the country, which carry our logo and message, and they bring awareness to our program through racing.”
Ecker said his organization is a sort of matchmaker. In Prince William, that means working with the Friendship Place, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that serves more than 1,600 people throughout the D.C. Metro region through street outreach, a drop-in, free medical and psychiatric clinic, case management, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing, job placement and specialized programs for veterans and their families.
“Friendship Place locates veterans living on the street and gets them placed in permanent housing,” explained Ecker. “Then Friendship Place reaches out to us to provide whatever support that vet needs for that home. We usually supply an entire houseful of stuff because they have nothing.”
Following in His Grandfather’s Footsteps
The Findleys learned about the organization when the senior Findley was racing at the Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas. One night, the men started talking.
“Rick and I hit it off,” said the elder Findley. “He’s a retired Marine, and we got to talking about helping veterans by furnishing their housing. I am a Vietnam veteran and when we came home in the ’70s, we weren’t treated well. I didn’t want to see that happen [again].”
All the pieces began to fall into place. Although still not of legal driving age, the younger Findley wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps—both racing and supporting veterans. His grandfather said the family has strong ties to the military— numerous cousins are currently serving.
“I started racing when I was 9 and have been racing ever since,” said Findley. “I was racing before I could drive legally. For the cars I was driving, I didn’t need a license—all you need to know is how to drive.”
In 2014, he got involved with Vets on Track. And his involvement reaches far beyond simply driving with the organization’s logo on his car. “I’ve gained knowledge of what happens to veterans and how they try to cope with problems they may have after they get out of the military,” said Findley. “We also have learned what they need to become independent and live normal lives.”
Ecker said the driver has pitched in moving furniture for veterans. He’s scheduled special meet-and-greets with military families and has sent military kids attending his races home with autographed trading cards and posters.
His grandfather said he couldn’t be prouder. “He won a 2015 Southern National Motorsports Park track championship,” he said. “He is a good race car driver, and he races fair—that is a plus for anyone who races. I am very proud of him.”
Marianne Weaver ([email protected]) is a freelance editor and writer. She earned a BA in English from the University of Pittsburgh and an MJ from Temple University. She lives in Gainesville, Va., with her husband and two children.