When an Indy car pit crew heads into battle, the terrain is rarely foreign, the guns fire air instead of bullets and the most pressing enemy is the stopwatch. But while many things separate the weekend warriors on pit lane from our nation’s military heroes at home and abroad, more than a few draw them together and earn mutual respect in their fields.
The Verizon IndyCar Series paddock welcomed guests to last month’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the U.S. Special Operations Command stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in nearby Tampa. Active military from all the branches met with drivers and team members, and learned up close that precision and teamwork are required in both professions.
One team member in the paddock who could relate well to both was Dillon Applegate, a 24-year-old mechanic and inside rear tire changer for Graham Rahal on the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. A former Marine, Applegate is in his fifth season working for RLL. While racing was his first passion, Applegate’s stint in the Marines taught him many lessons that have transferred into a steady career in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Applegate, one of numerous former military members now working in INDYCAR that the active military members encountered, is the latest generation in a military family. His grandfather and father are Navy veterans.
“I was racing as a kid and it wasn’t really going anywhere for me,” said Applegate (shown kneeling in the photo above with driver Graham Rahal and the military members who visited the team's compound), “and my dad said, ‘Hey, you know, if you don’t want to play a college sport, maybe we should look into the military.’
“I had a little mechanical skill when I went in, so I went in as a mechanic. … I did my (required) four years and thought, ‘I don’t know if this is for me. I might want to go back to racing.’”
Following his tours and efforts overseas, Applegate’s return to racing was aided by a familiar name. At the time, the National Guard sponsored Rahal’s No. 15 Honda. A friend of Applegate’s invited him to check out the team. Since then, Applegate has taken multiple important roles both at the track and in the team’s Brownsburg, Indiana, shop.
He attributes his time in the service as one of the factors that led him to securing his place within the team.
“I build the bodywork, I wrap the car (with the appropriate colors and sponsor logos), I do the little aerodynamic parts, but the military definitely helped because it makes you grow up so fast,” said Applegate. “It turns you into a man. How that affected me in racing: You (learn to) pick stuff up, so if you can pick something up and you can do it the first time after they show you, the chances (of success) in this series are a lot better.”
Sgt. Major Dan Lopez of USSOCCOM led the military visits to the track on St. Petersburg race weekend. In addition to the teamwork and precision necessary in both occupations, Lopez noted another important trait shared.
“You have values,” Lopez said. “I know the teams have values, and (in) the military and the joint units we have our own set of values. But really, at the end of the day, values, ethics and hard work is what keeps the team going and we all strive to win.”
Applegate also drew parallels between military and racing, not just through values, but through the family that each team becomes.
“It’s a huge family atmosphere here,” he said. “Bobby Rahal co-owns the team (with David Letterman and Mike Lanigan) and Graham’s the driver, so there’s the family right there. We’re always together as a team. Bob’s cooking us dinner and we’re always a big family atmosphere and all the team guys get along.
“The weakest links kind of get washed out, and in the military, it was the same way. You’re with each other all the time. In INDYCAR, you’re with each other all the time, so if you’re not a team or you’re not family-based, it’s not going to work. I do think that the military helped me create a family atmosphere here.”