Although NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin and Navy Ensign Sarah Mitchell never knew each other, their passion for Virginia Tech and the United States brought them together in a unique way.
Mitchell, a 2013 graduate of Neshaminy High School, died in July 2018 during a training incident in the Red Sea aboard the USS Jason Dunham. To honor her, Hamlin’s No. 11 car will display Mitchell’s name across its windshield during the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of NASCAR’s 600 Miles of Remembrance initiative.
Mitchell "always wanted to do something that was bigger than herself,” said Dave Collins, Mitchell’s fiancé. He also graduated from Neshaminy in 2013 and served as an operations specialist in the Navy until January 2019.
“The fact that she’s being remembered is awesome to see,” Collins said.
An athlete, Mitchell played basketball, field hockey and track and field at Neshaminy, where she met Collins.
Hamlin, a Virginia native and Virginia Tech fan, was matched with Mitchell by Honor and Remember, an organization dedicated to recognizing the sacrifice of fallen service members and their families. NASCAR partners with Honor and Remember to match drivers with fallen service members who have a connection.
“You just can’t understand the sacrifices not only them, but their families, make,” Hamlin said. “I don’t understand how they’re so courageous.”
In April, as part of the 600 Miles of Remembrance program, Hamlin visited Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, where the USS Jason Dunham is stationed, and toured the USS San Jacinto.
"I got to go see where [Mitchell] worked,” Hamlin said. "It was tough. Everyone was thinking about her.”
In addition to Mitchell’s name on Hamlin’s car, NASCAR and Honor and Remember work together to bring the families of the service members honored during the race to the Coca-Cola 600. The families are invited to the race and offered a chance to meet with the driver during the weekend.
Mitchell’s parents, Betsy and Jack Mitchell, and several family members plan to attend the race in North Carolina. Jack Mitchell is a NASCAR fan, and his favorite driver is Kyle Busch. Collins, who is working as a government contractor for the Navy in Virginia, said he is trying to find a way to get out of prior work commitments to attend the race.
“It’s really an honor," said Betsy Mitchell. “My Sarah would love this. She’s been to NASCAR races before. She liked to go to different things.”
Mitchell attended a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, her parents said. She also went to the Pilot Flying J Battle at Bristol on Sept. 10, 2016, when Virginia Tech and Tennessee played a football game at the speedway. The event broke the record for attendance at a college football game with an announced crowd of 156,990.
During her four years at Virginia Tech, Mitchell attended home football games as part of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and played the piccolo for the Highty-Tighties, the Corps of Cadets’ regimental band, during her freshman and sophomore years, Collins said.
Mitchell also served as a commander of the Corps of Cadets and a platoon commander for the university’s Naval ROTC. She graduated in 2017 with a degree in biochemistry and minors in chemistry and leadership studies, and was commissioned by the Navy later that May.
On Nov. 9, 2018, Virginia Tech honored Mitchell by adding her name to the Ut Prosim Pylon, which includes every student and graduate who died defending the United States. Mitchell’s name was the 432nd etched into the Pylons and the first woman to receive the honor.
Hamlin said he looked forward to meeting Mitchell’s family and speaking with them about what inspired her to enlist in the Navy. As a fellow Virginia Tech fan, Hamlin said he would be honored to end up in Victory Lane with Mitchell’s name on his car.