Four lucky soldiers left on Thursday for a trip of a lifetime: they will all get the privilege of being part of a pit crew at the most famous race track of all—the Daytona International Speedway.
Philanthropist and event organizer Chris Ecklund says his Canadian Heroes organization has been working on the Daytona trip for awhile but it just finally came together in the past few weeks with the help of appreciative Canadians and the Canadian Military.
“Canadian Heroes is very excited to make this happen for these dedicated soldiers,” says Ecklund. “They have served their country well and now we are doing something special for them.”
Ecklund launched the Canadian Heroes organization in response to the release of a military tribute cd and video – Canadian Heroes – on Remembrance Day 2009. In less than two years that website has spiralled into a Canadian Heroes clothing line, two memorial cars, tickets for soldiers to attend the World Junior Hockey Series, and now a Canadian Heroes NASCAR Racing Car. All created with the intent to honour our soldiers’ courage and sacrifice.
“The Canadian Heroes initiative is about creating awareness and support for our Canadian troops and their families,” says Ecklund. “It is also a tribute to those who have served in the past, present and future.”
The four soldiers selected for the Daytona trip have all just returned from a recent mission in Afghanistan. That qualification and their availability to participate in this 10-day event were some of the factors that helped put them on the road to Daytona today.
For Cpl. Michael Opatovsky, MCpl. Joseph Lavoie, Cpl. Mark Wellings, and Cpl. Andrew Latulippe, the trip to Daytona and the next 10 days will be an experience they won’t soon forget.
“I hope they will all take home some excellent memories,” says Ecklund. “We have a few surprises for these guys when they get down there.
One of the big ones is that each of them will get the privilege of taking eight laps around the track with the Richard Petty driving experience. One of the guys almost had a heart attack when I announced that last night.”
The soldiers are driving one of the Canadian Heroes Memorial Cars from Hamilton to Daytona and they should arrive sometime on Friday. At the raceway, the soldiers will be donning pit crew uniforms and become members of the team to help qualify Peterson Motorsports for this year’s running of the ARCA 200 at Daytona.
“For years one of our sister sites, has been participating in racing events,” says Ecklund. “Through this connection and over time a relationship with Peterson Motorsports was formed. This year we saw an opportunity to get more directly involved and envisioned the partnership coming from So, Canadian Heroes and Peterson Motorsports partnered up to became an official sponsor of an ARCA racing team.”
The Peterson Motorsports Team, owned by Wayne Peterson, has been working together for over 30 years with top ten finishes in races, driver points and series owner points in the ARCA series.
This partnership, and the media attention this road trip has been receiving, is certain to bring international exposure to the Canadian Heroes website and the cause.
Cpl. Mark Wellings, a gunner with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in Petawawa, says he is “super excited to go to Daytona and appreciates the opportunity.”
With two Afghanistan tours under his belt, this seasoned veteran understands too well the sacrifices of war. On May 24th, 2010, on a routine re-supply patrol his vehicle struck an IED. His driver Tpr. Larry Rudd was killed and Wellings and three other members of his crew were wounded. Wellings‘ injuries included multiple fractures to his leg, shoulder, arms and face.
“I was medi-vaced to Germany where I spent a week getting medical care,” says Wellings, “and then to Ottawa where I spent another week in hospital. I spent most of this past summer healing and finally returned to the squadron early in 2011.”
For Cpl. Andrew Latulippe, a native of Tabusintac, New Brunswick, the trip to Daytona “feels like I won the lottery…I get the chance to live every kids dream.”
Latulippe has served in the Canadian Forces for four years. After a start with the armoured division in Gagetown in 2007, he later joined the Royal Canadian Dragoons Regiment in Petawawa in 2009. He has just returned from his first mission in Afghanistan where his duties included surveillance operator and Coyote driver. He and his girlfriend Melanie live in Pembroke, Ontario.
Mcpl. Joe LaVoie, who serves with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada in Hamilton, says he is thrilled with this opportunity to go to Daytona. “I really want to thank Mr. Ecklund for considering me and all the Canadians who support me,” says LaVoie, “but mostly I want to thank my wife who’s giving me the nod to escape from the clutches of her never ceasing hugs since I got home. I can’t wait to go!”
LaVoie joined the reserves 13 years ago and has just returned from a mission in Afghanistan. He and his wife Cynn make their home in Hamilton.
Cpl. Michael W. Opatovsky says it’s a great honour to represent his comrades and country at the Daytona 500. “I want to thank Chris and all those who support Canadian Heroes for this fantastic opportunity,” says Opatovsky. “I hope I do the country proud.”
Opatovsky is a native of Niagara Falls and a reservist with the Lincoln & Welland Regiment in St. Catherines, Ontario. He has served his country in Bosnia And Herzegovina in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2006-2007. He currently lives in Niagara Falls with his wife Katherine and their infant son and is employed at Home Depot.