When U.S Marine Corps sergeant Jeff Kyle was announced the winner of Crown Royal’s annual "Your Hero’s Name Here" program back in June, it meant this year’s Sprint Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — commonly known as the Brickyard 400 — would be officially named after him.
Kyle was chosen among five deserving finalists for the honor, which has included having his name plastered on just about every piece of signage this weekend around the sprawling 2.5-mile Indy track.
"Everybody keeps asking me how I feel. I don’t think it’s still set in yet," said Kyle, who is the brother of well-known ”American Sniper” Chris Kyle and was deployed to Iraq twice, along with Africa and several other locations overseas. "After doing the photos this morning and everything, it’s starting to set in. It’s crazy, it’s humbling, it’s honoring, it’s just an insane experience."
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In addition to seeing his name everywhere, Kyle will present the trophy to Sunday’s race winner and get to kiss the track’s iconic yard of bricks along with the winner and his team. But a rare opportunity that came about on Saturday might ultimately be his most enduring memory of the whole experience, however.
Invited inside Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 hauler, Kyle presented the five-time Brickyard 400 winner with a bottle of Crown Royal XR — short for extra rare — and a specially embroidered bag congratulating Gordon on his racing career.
Crown Royal XR is made for celebrating special moments and is the top variant in the whisky’s portfolio. This weekend is expected to be the final Brickyard start for Gordon, who is calling it quits from full-time racing at season’s end.
"Just being able to meet him in person and shake his hand and chit-chat with him for a minute, for him to take the time before qualifying, is huge," said Kyle, a recipient of the Navy Achievement Medal for leading the first Marine detachment to transport a nuclear submarine through hostile waters.
"For him to be able to talk to little ole me, that was really cool."
After serving the United States military from 2000-08 in the infantry and reserves, Kyle became a board member for the Guardian For Heroes Foundation, which seeks to provide free, in-home fitness equipment to disabled veterans.
In addition, Kyle is a board member of American Valor, the foundation which runs the memorial benefit to honor his late brother, Chris, who was shot to death in 2013 at a Texas gun range.
Kyle feels a personal responsibility to come to the aid of veterans.
"I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been there," he said. "I’ve been in the dirt, I’ve lost buddies, I’ve lost a brother, and I know what it’s like to be there and I know what it’s like to come home, and not being able to find my way and not being able to figure out what I’m going to do. I take it upon myself and it’s my mission to help out the vets as much as I can, because it’s up to us to take care of our own."
Nominated for Crown Royal’s "Your Hero’s Name Here" program by one of his heroes, 2014 "Your Hero’s Name Here" Brickyard namesake John Wayne Walding, Kyle learned that he was this year’s winner while attending a Texas Rangers baseball game in his home state earlier this summer.
"We were under the impression that I was just coming there to present one of the foundations I work with a check," he said. "We got there and Crown Royal was waiting and they surprised me saying I was throwing out the first pitch, and right before I stepped on the mound they announced to everybody in the stadium that I was the winner this year. The pressure was on at that point to get it over the plate."
Now the pressure’s on Gordon, who spent his teenage years honing his racing skills on Indiana’s short tracks, to get a win in his final start at the Brickyard.
"I said, ‘No pressure, but I picked you to win my race,’ " Kyle said, reflecting on his closed-door encounter with the four-time Sprint Cup champion. "The Jeffs need to be on the podium."
Jeff Gordon received this specially embroidered bag from U.S Marine Corps sergeant Jeff Kyle.