Race car's war journey comes full circle with invite to Indianapolis 500

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To be remembered is an honor, and the whole of my object.”

-- Loring M. Bailey Jr.

It was the miniature race car that led me to make the phone call. When I heard Loring Bailey was still holding the car in his pocket, I knew what I had to do. Reach out to the man who gave it to him. 

The story begins at the same place in which it tragically ended, Quang Ngai, Vietnam, on March 15, 1970. That’s where Loring M. Bailey Jr., Special Forces 4 in the U.S. Army, gave the ultimate sacrifice. He lost his life seven months shy of his 25th birthday. But, for a young man who never again breathed the air in his home state of Connecticut, his memory and legacy live on. That’s why I got to know the man they called “Ring.”

Sure, I’d never met him. But I felt that changed after I watched filmmaker Soren Sorensen’s gripping documentary, “My Father’s Vietnam.” Soren’s father, Peter, came home from the war and, like so many of his generation, spoke little of his time in the jungles of Vietnam. He did, however, copy the names of two of his fallen brethren during a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington. Soren, a youngster at the time, witnessed the act and never forgot. Years later while embarking on a film career, he asked his father to tell the story. By 2015, it was on film for America to learn. By October 2017, it was my time to listen. 

I stumbled upon the film in a strike of serendipity. It was Ken Burns’ “Vietnam” documentary for which I was searching. Yet there, atop my iTunes selection list, sat Sorensen’s work. I watched it that evening. 

BaileyLoring Bailey (left) was like any of us as a young man, he with friends and a young wife, and a best friend was also his brother-in-law. Rik Carlson was thrilled to see Ring fall in love with his sister. After all, who better to share family gatherings and holiday dinners than the pal with which you’d run around and come of age, toiling hours with mutual interests in cars and racing. Unlike Rik, however, Ring had a dilemma weighing over his future: the certainty of being drafted for the conflict in Vietnam. 

It doesn’t make Ring unusual, unfortunately. The idea of enlisting before Uncle Sam called your number was reality for tens of thousands during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Ring Bailey made the call himself. In the summer of 1968, he enlisted in the Army with the option of Officers Candidate School. He entered a nine-week training at infantry school in Louisiana. Three months later, he began what was to be a nine-month combat tour in the Bayou of the South Pacific. He did not return alive. 

He wrote letters. A lot of letters. He wrote to his parents, who held hope from their home outside Hartford that their only son would come home. He wrote to his wife. He wrote to her brother. Rik wrote him back. 

The letters offer glimpses into the hell that is war, and the documentary offers glimpses of the hell that falls upon its survivors. In “My Father’s Vietnam,” Carlson speaks glowingly of his friend, of a friendship seemingly recalling events of last week – not last century. In Carlson’s words, I could feel the juxtaposition of pride in Ring’s service and the incredulous sentiment wondering how it could be justified. It was clear to me that Rik lives with a strong passion to honor an emotion expressed in one of Ring’s countless letters: Don’t let me be forgotten. 

They worked on cars. They modeled cars and watched cars and drew designs of cars. And Ring loved to watch them race. That was why, when Christmas 1968 rolled around, Rik sent Ring a miniature race car in a care package. In his letters, Ring let it be known – in the dark nights pierced by the sounds of enemy mortar fire – that he found comfort in the car. He ran the hot wheels over the warm jungle mud, dreaming of the day he and Rik would again torque wheel bearings or calibrate an engine. In the darkest hours and heat of hell, it was the car that kept his cool. 

When I called Rik, I introduced myself and told him I’d watched the documentary. I work at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I explained, and I had a question: “Did you or Ring ever follow the Indianapolis 500?” 

He seemed distracted as I asked. He repeated my name in the form of a “Query.” When I confirmed he had it correct, he confessed he had been keyboard sleuthing as we spoke. “I just Googled you. You do work at the “500!”

He then confirmed the suspicion that prompted my call: Yes, in fact, auto racing was a special bond for Rik and his dear friend. And, yes, listening to and later watching “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was indeed a tradition enjoyed by Rik Carlson. 

So I made the offer. The Indianapolis 500 is more than a race. It is a tradition. A tradition of family, friends and reflection. It is a time when we pay homage to those men and women who have given their lives unselfishly, and without fear, to make it possible for us to witness as free men and women the world’s most spectacular spectator sport. 

Men like Loring M. Bailey Jr., Specialist 4, United States Army.

Ring’s possessions were returned to his family when his journey was completed in 1970. His dog tags, I presume his eyeglasses and, from his pocket, the race car. 

I couldn’t accept not having Ring invited to the Indianapolis 500. I never met the man, and his time on Earth was completed before mine began. I could, however, meet the man who has kept Ring’s memory alive. It’s for that reason Rik Carlson’s phone rang last month, with me on the other end. It is for that reason I made the offer. It is for that reason I was elated he accepted. 

On this week when we honor and remember all of our military veterans, I am thrilled to have Rik Carlson and his companion Debbie as my guests for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May 2018.

I’m thrilled as well to have Ring. Because, just like friendships built through love and letters and race cars, the human spirit of its champions never die. They live on to finish their dreams. 

(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)

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