Professional stock car driver Jeffrey Earnhardt spends much of his life in the fast lane, making a lot of left turns at unfathomable speeds. But, he also finds time to take pause, stand perfectly still and reflect on the reason he has the liberty to live and breathe as he does.
While his heart and devotion extend genuinely to the men and women of America’s Armed Forces, Earnhardt, grandson of racing legend Dale Earnhardt, admits to knowing relatively little about the intricacies of military life.
Retired Army Captain Tyler Merritt knew even less about NASCAR’s world of auto racing. But, when the two connected for a greater good and forged a friendship, a better understanding and appreciation for the other’s world ensued.
Merritt, founder of the Nine Line Foundation, uses that very example when defining the mission.
“The ultimate goal of our apparel is to bring together those who serve in the military and those who don’t, to start conversations,” Merritt said of Nine Line’s military-themed apparel line. “That’s what I’ve done with Jeff. He really didn’t know much about the military and I didn’t know much about NASCAR, but we’ve brought the two communities together and found that we have very like-minded values.”
From its humble beginning in 2013, the Nine Line Foundation has grown by leaps and bounds, developing into an organization vital to the well-being of American servicemen and servicewomen.
“Nine line” is a military term Medevacs use for calling in a medical injury.
“Nine Line started in my garage,” Merritt said. “We’ve now grown to a 200-man operation with a 60,000 square foot facility. There are a lot of individuals helping us grow, but to gain true relevance, we decided early on to not hold back. We are a relentlessly-patriotic apparel company, founded by Veterans and spouses. We advocate for Veteran and first-responder initiatives.”
The Nine Line Foundation is currently building a Veterans Village in Savannah, Georgia, where they have already built five wheelchair-accessible homes. The Foundation’s overall mission is to raise awareness to the needs of wounded soldiers and veterans, as well as improve the quality of life for injured heroes.
“I’ve always been a big supporter of our military and veterans,” said Earnhardt. “Nine Line stands for a great cause and they are all about giving back to our military and making sure they are taken care of after being discharged. We called them up to see if there was any kind of partnership we could help them with. One thing led to another and here we are doing all kinds of fun stuff together. It’s really exciting and an even bigger honor to be able to work with them and try to push a positive message out there.”
That positive message will reach fruition at this Memorial Day weekend’s Coca Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Nine Line Apparel and Earnhardt join forces for a fundraising initiative of t-shirt sales to raise money for “Angels of America’s Fallen,” a military organization devoted to helping children of fallen U.S. service members. From April 25 to May 9, Nine Line Apparel sold commemorative “Remember the Fallen” shirts. Proceeds, which reached nearly $15,000, will be presented to Angels of America’s Fallen representatives on site at this weekend’s race.
Angels of America’s Fallen honors the legacy of fallen military and first responders by helping their children grow successfully into adulthood.
“The support from Nine Line Apparel will be tremendous in helping us stand by the children of our fallen heroes during their most crucial formative years,” said Joe Lewis, Founder and CEO of Angels of America’s Fallen. “All funds raised will go directly to empowering very deserving children in sports, music, and arts as positive outlets for their grief. Our mission is to engage them all year, every year, all the way through 18 years old, and we couldn’t do it without the support of patriots.”
Merritt reflects on the memory of a former staff member of his, an ex-ranger who took his own life. He left behind his wife and small child.
“His death absolutely devastated our company,” Merritt said. “He was battling multiple deployments in a very rough unit. He saw a lot of combat, a lot of death, and it was overwhelming. So, when Angels of America’s Fallen heard about this, they reached out to us and said they wanted to help. That’s the type of community we have been able to build.”
The two organizations remain tightly connected to the day.
In addition to the donation, the paint scheme for Earnhardt’s car for the race will include the names of fallen heroes provided by donors.
“Even though the circumstances are unfortunate, it’s really going to be an honor to carry the names of those individuals on the car this weekend and to be able to continue to show respect,” Earnhardt said. “Those people paid the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t think there’s any gesture we could make to adequately thank them for all they’ve done for us and our country. Without them, we would never be able to live like we do here in America today.”
“I knew nothing about NASCAR, so it was amazing to go see the legend at work at Talladega,” Merritt said. “Jeff is such a humble human being, but when we walked around out there, he’s treated as a demi-God. He has the name of the most iconic legend in racing history. I’ve been able to learn about his grandfather and learn about Jeff. He is extremely patriotic and supports veterans and first responders and has the same values we have; flag, faith, family, friendships.”
Prior to the start of Final Practice @CLTMotorSpdwy, Jeffrey shared a special moment with SPc George Manis’ Family.
— Jeffrey Earnhardt (@JEarnhardt1) May 26, 2018
“You see it all the time…people that suffer from PTSD or even lose their life overseas,” Earnhardt said. “So, to be able to help support those efforts and make sure those men, women and families are still being taken care of and looked after. I think the simple fact that they know people still care about them is a huge thing.”
Earnhardt and Merritt could have easily sped past each other in the proverbial night. But, life didn’t have that in the cards. By virtue of a shared passion and commitment, coupled with ensuing conversations, the two became friends. But, more importantly, they can now ensure countless men, women, children and families of the Armed Forces that they, too, have friends.