This weekend America pays tribute to those in the military who paid the ultimate price in serving their country. Running in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, AJ Foyt Racing partnered with ABC Supply to raise awareness of Homes For Our Troops, a program that aids severely injured military veterans by building homes customized to the individual needs of the veteran. Driven by J.R. Hildebrand, the No. 11 Homes For Our Troops (HFOT) Chevrolet’s livery design was inspired by the American flag. In addition to raising awareness, the campaign is raising money through donations made at hfotusa.org. ABC Supply has pledged to match donations up to $1 million made through May 31st. Three members of the No. 11 crew are veterans (Zach Smith, D.J. Ellsworth and Chris McFadden, pictured left to right above) and this year their car holds extra special meaning for them. We asked them a few questions….
DJ Ellsworth – Specialist (E-4) Army National Guard (2009 – 2015)
Why did you join Army National Guard?
DJE: “I always wanted to do it growing up. My family was in the military. One of my grandfathers was Army, the other was a Marine. I had a couple of cousins that were in the Army and Marines as well. My unit was inAnderson, Indiana, the headquarters is in Lafayette. I worked in aviation support. I was in communications, so I dealt with all the radios and that equipment.
Did you ever go anywhere else?
DJE: “No, I did my basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. And then I did my AIT (advanced individual training) in Fort Gordon. The AIT was specific to your job title. When I came back, we had a couple deployments that popped up but our unit ended up not going in. I had a back pain and when I got it checked out, they found I had a disease and after that I wasn’t able to do anything.”
What do you think of Homes For Our Troops?
DJE: “I think it’s pretty awesome. It’s great to have an organization or a group of people that are willing to do that, because there’s a lot of troops that do have disabilities. So, it’s really great to help them out.”
What do you think of the car?
DJE: “The car is awesome. It’s great. To see the video when we came out on track, me and him are up front and McFadden’s pushing the car. And it was it’s awesome. It’s great. Even the fire suits look great. There was a photographer that shot a picture of the car in front of the huge flag over the grandstands made it look even better.”
Zach Smith – Senior Airman (E-4) Air Force (2007 – 2013)
What branch of the military were you in?
ZS: “I did two enlistments in the Air Force, I was a heavy bomber mechanic and worked on the stealth platform which was the B-2 Bomber. I was stationed in Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.”
What was involved?
ZS: “Actually being on the airframe is a lot like being on a race team. It’s crew-based, you have your head crew chief or a dedicated crew chief. Then there is an assistant and three to four mechanics underneath the two lead guys all in different stages of training and learning and certification. Once you become a full, dedicated crew chief in the Air Force, it’s almost like being a crew chief on a car here. There’s a lot of similarities from the military to the race team here, so it’s a good transition, a smooth, good fit.”
What are the similarities?
ZS: “It’s a very streamlined and task-driven environment. You know what you need to get done and you get it done. There were a lot of long nights then, and a lot of long nights now, but it kind of goes hand-in-hand. Very similar–I went from working on a $2.3 billion aircraft to a million dollar racecar. I enjoy it a lot. It’s good fun. And if you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be doing it, right?”
Why did you want to be in the Air Force?
ZS: “Actually, I wanted to fly, but I’m six (foot) three (inches), a broad guy. So I was too big for the ejection seats and I couldn’t fly, so I gave up my ride to go to the Academy to fly the planes. I said the next best thing was to work on them. I’ve always enjoyed working and tinkering in the garage and grew up working as a farmhand mechanic. Cut my teeth out east of here in the country on one of the largest farms out there as a hired hand mechanic. It kind of snowballed into the next bigger, cooler thing to work on. So that’s what made me want to be in the Air Force. I always wanted to be around aviation and technology — it’s interested me from a young age. As I grew up and got more mechanical experience, I worked on things that went faster and were a little bit cooler — that was always the next step for me. I had a good time in the Air Force and I’m having a great time now, too.”
Why did you leave the Air Force?
ZS: “I was going to stay in longer but ended up getting out primarily because I got hurt, so I had to get out. So being a veteran, let alone being a disabled veteran, it means a lot to work on a team like this that has the Homes For Our Troops car. So yes, a cool situation, and cool really all the way around.”
What do you think about Home For Our Troops car?
ZS: “I think it’s awesome. It’s literally one of the coolest looking cars I’ve seen, being the fact that I’m a veteran on the team means a lot working, with other veterans on the car. Me and DJ have history. We’ve known each other for 10 years and to be working together now is cool. It was surreal walking out on qualifying day: me, him and Chris McFadden, the other veteran on the team. All three of us were around the whole car walking out there. It was kind of an awe-inspiring moment for us. It means a lot. Being a veteran and knowing what those guys go through that need the help, and luckily, I’m blessed to not need the help that they need, but I’m excited to be a part of that platform.”
Chris McFadden – Staff Sergeant/U.S. Army (2001 – 2013)
Where did you serve?
CM: “I served in Operation Noble Eagle I and II, Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as some of the first people on the ground after she moved through New Orleans, and Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq.”
What were your challenges when you returned to civilian life?
CM: “Coming home from Iraq some of my toughest challenges were trying to adapt to my new way of life post war and trying to find my identity out of my uniform. In 2015 I helped develop the Veteran’s Court of Marion County in Indianapolis. This program allows veteran offenders to work a program that allows them the mentorship and resources to get their lives back after finding themselves in front of Judge Certo who is the presiding judge of the court.
“I also help our first responders in their CIT (Crisis Intervention Training) that is / in Marion County as well as surrounding counties. CIT helps first responders understand how to help veterans in a crisis situation and how to relate and de-escalate the situation without an incident. CIT also helps them understand PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and how they affect veterans. I also help veterans find resources for jobs, education, benefits, and housing in the local veteran community. My dream would be to have a non-profit that I could help veterans get back on their feet after returning home from a tour of duty or at the end of their service to our country.”
What do you think of the Homes For Our Troops program?
CM: “The HFOT program is amazing! As someone who has been diagnosed with a MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) and PTSD I have faced my own challenges over the years. Adapting to a new way of life is hard enough, but add a TBI, loss of limb or sight to that scenario and the challenges multiply. Being able to have a custom home built for these men and women that works for their particular needs is nothing short of incredible. Things immediately become more manageable for them and it eases the stresses and challenges not only for that person but their entire family. Oftentimes the focus in these situations is on the veteran as they are the ones that show the physical or mental side of the injuries. The family is often forgotten or overshadowed, but they feel the brunt of the force. Being injured in the line of duty and relying on others to take care of you is taxing mentally and physically, it can destroy your sense of self-worth. The more that the veteran can do for themselves, the more stress and responsibility to take care of that person is lightened — and it gives them a sense of self-worth. In the end, the veteran gets some sort of independence again and no longer feels like a burden to his or her family and that is a feeling that is hard to describe.
“HFOT allows each person to gain a little bit of themselves back by building these adaptive homes and I am proud to represent them in this year’s Indy 500. The No. 11 HFOT car looks AMAZING! The livery is everything that represents those who serve. The Old Glory stars and stripes look incredible flying around the track and it’s sure to be a fan favorite!! I wore those colors on my uniform for many years and was proud to do so. I’m just as proud to walk out onto the starting grid for this year’s Indy 500 not only representing HFOT but the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our country.
Your thoughts on this weekend?
CM: “Memorial Day weekend is very special to me as I always remember the people who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country. In particular for me it’s about SSG Paul Pabla who was KIA (killed in action) on July 3, 2006 during my unit’s deployment in Mosul, Iraq. I always take his memorial band that I wear and place it on the car for a photo… it’s my special thing that I do to honor him. He would be proud of this car, the livery, and the veterans that we have working on this car and this team.”
What do you do on the race team?
CM: “As far as my duties on the team go, I am the team’s physical trainer, pit stop performance coach, and the outside rear tire changer on the #11 HFOT car. I also try to keep morale high.”
DALTON KELLETT – no. 4 K-Line Insulators USA Chevrolet
Starting 29th (228.916 mph)
“It looks like Mother Nature’s continuing to mess with us this month. It’s kind of been the theme I guess, but I have the utmost confidence in the number four crew and the work that they’ve been doing to get that car back together. So, obviously we would love the chance to shake the car down and just make sure everything’s good to go. We’ve had a good car all month and I know that’s where we’ll be when we roll off the truck. So if we don’t run till the race then that’ll be all right.
“I’m really looking forward to this year 500. It’s our biggest event of the year and there’s so much build up to it and a lot of practice and excitement around qualifying and it’s definitely been a fun year here at IMS with our car in race trim. We’ve had a really good car. So, I think we’ve got a good chance to move up from where we started. Obviously, we’d like to be further up to not make it so hard for us. But I think as the race progresses and we’ve got pitstops and people in different strategies, we’ll have lots of opportunities to make up positions.”
Kellett Fast Facts: Age 28…Born in Stouffville, Canada and lives in Indianapolis…Became engaged to Nicole Westra and they plan to wed on New Year’s Eve…Graduated from Queens University with a degree in Engineering Physics…Brand spokesman for Ten80 Education’s National STEM League…Enjoys rock climbing, backcountry skiing, camping, playing guitar, cooking and golf. For the technically curious, Kellett posts TikTok videos (@dalton_kellett) about the race car labeled “Indy Mondays” with subjects ranging from the steering wheel to the weight jacker to cold tires.
KYLE KIRKWOOD – No. 14 ROKiT/Sexton Chevrolet
Starting 28th (229.406 mph)
“It’s going to be good. It seems like the weather’s going to be nice for Sunday. So in conditions that we’ve ran in for the past couple weeks, we’ve kind of got a headstart with our car. We feel like we’ve gotten it in the window and it’s fortunate that we had that Monday practice. I don’t really know what’s happening with the Friday practice, but we’re not striving to get anything more; we feel like we’ve got a good race car. We felt racy in traffic throughout the practices and now we’ll see how it pays off for the race.
Kirkwood Fast Facts: Age 23…Born in West Palm Beach, and lives in Jupiter, Florida… Only driver to win championships in all three divisions of the Road to Indy ladder system…Began racing karts at age 5…Won the 2018 Cooper Tires USF2000 title (12 wins in 14 races) and won 15 of 17 races to claim the F3 Americas Championship…Won the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with nine victories and five poles in 16 races (RP Motorsports)…Won 2021 Indy Lights title (2020 season canceled due to pandemic) with 10 victories, seven poles in 20 races. Enjoys surfing, deep-sea fishing, diving and golf.
J.R. HILDEBRAND – No. 11 Homes For Our Troops/ABC Supply Chevrolet
Starting 17th (231.112 mph)
“I’m really excited about the upcoming 500. I think we’ve all got a little bit of uncertainty going into the race just because the conditions are going to be much warmer than we’ve been practicing in for the majority of practice. We’ve been working on the same basic sort of characteristics of the car and continuing to work on those going into the race.”
“It’s just going to be about making kind of the right decisions in terms of the setup. little tweaks, picking the right downforce level, based on where we’re at.
“From the driver’s perspective, it’s all about finding the right balance between being patient through the race, but being assertive in certain situations, when you really are going to need to be whether that’s from a defensive perspective or going on offense to try to pick off some spots.
“It’s going to be tough one way or the other. Managing that in the right times is probably going to be where most of the shuffle of cars are — at least on track. I have a lot of faith in the guys in the pits, the pit stops during practice were really good so we’ll be leaning on them certainly to do their thing.
“It’s been a great month with the team so far and with the Homes For Our Troops Chevy. Being in this car on Memorial Day weekend is a really special experience and to be able to have an opportunity to be raising money for Homes For Our Troops, along with ABC Supply, which has been a great partner of the team for a long time.
“We’re sort of on the homestretch of having the donation window open where ABC Supply is matching dollar for dollar up to a million dollars. And we got notified earlier this week that they’re already past their halfway point. So definitely trying to do our part to bring it home as we head towards race day.”
Hildebrand Fast Facts: Age 34…Born in Sausalito, California and lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife Kristin…has competed in 66 IndyCar races with 17 top-10s including seven top-5s. In 11 Indy 500 starts, he has four top-10 starts and four top-10 finishes.
Tatiana Calderón will be seeing her second Indy 500 on Sunday. She witnessed her first from the Turn 3 grandstands as a teenager in 2011 when her now teammate J.R. Hildebrand finished second as a rookie. This year Calderón will watch the start from the pits and then go to the Foyt suite in Turn 2 to see the on track action. She took in Carb Day from the pits and the Foyt suite.
“They look so quick!” said Calderón. “I think you don’t realize until you sit outside [the track] and see the cars pass how quick everything is and to put into perspective a little bit. We went in the pit lane as well and to see just from the engineers’ view, sometimes you don’t get too many chances to do that. So and to just hear a little bit of the feedback from JR on the ovals with the tools that they have available. So it was kind of nice to get a feel for it.”
The Indianapolis 500 will be broadcast live on NBC starting at 11 a.m. ET and will be streamed on Peacock.