By Jill Kruse
For Cpl. Andrew Latulippe, Race Week at the Daytona 500 will be an experience he and three of his comrades won’t soon forget. I caught up with Drew online recently to find out how his trip went and get the highlights.
Q: How did you first hear about the trip to Daytona? What was involved in applying and being selected?
Drew: I first heard about this trip to Daytona through a friend I served with overseas named Cpl. Greg Shubert. One of our friends and soldiers, Trooper Larry Rudd, left his life over there after striking a roadside bomb. We met Chris Ecklund at his funeral. He was the one who made this trip possible for Cpl. Mark Wellings and I to discover the Daytona experience through an organization called Canadian Heroes.
Q: How did you react when you first heard you were going to Daytona?
Drew: When I first found out that I had been chosen for this trip of a lifetime, I honestly felt like I had won the lottery.
Q: What does it mean to you – getting this opportunity – among so many possible comrades who have also done their duty?
Drew: It means the world to me, getting this opportunity to do what every child dreams of getting to do some day.
Q: What did your girlfriend and your folks back home in New Brunswick think of the news?
Drew: My folks and girlfriend were very supportive. I just wish my brother Joseph Latulippe could have been there to enjoy the week; we have both dreamed of this. But we are very thankful to those who made this trip possible for me.
Q: When do you think about people like Chris Ecklund, the promoter of Canadian Heroes, who go out of their way to show you and your comrades how much they are valued and supported?
Drew: We think about people like Mr. Chris Ecklund everyday. Without people like him this would be impossible, and as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, I am much obliged for the support we have to help our soldiers push forward to do our duties and help keep our country free.
Q: What do your comrades think about all this attention you are getting and about the Canadian Heroes campaign?
Drew: Every soldier I work with is very supportive about the organization and the opportunity I had–the chance to live my dream. Hopefully next year some lucky soldiers will get to try it for themselves and discover the fun behind race week at the famous track in Daytona.
Q:. I understand you travelled to Daytona, Florida in one of the Canadian Heroes Memorial Cars. What was the trip like and did you get any inquiries from people about the car?
Drew: Yes, we travelled to the Sunshine state in a little CRV; It was a wonderful trip. I got to make new friends and understand how excited others were to also be a part of the amazing experience, The vehicle was a little bit full so we were limited on our movement inside, but the attention we received from fellow travelers on the highway made it all worthwhile. Some were giving us the ole thumbs up as well as peace signs as we passed by. We even had some motorcyclists telling us to roll down our windows to talk to them as we drove, rather humorous.
Q: What happened when you finally arrived at the Daytona International Raceway?
Drew: The morning we arrived at Daytona, we met up with a gentleman named Brian to help us get the RV we would be living in during our stay in Daytona. We were parked in the Geico Campgrounds directly in front of the super stretch on the speedway. We were parked beside a fence overlooking Lake Lloyd where people fished everyday we were there, including numerous racecar drivers.
Q: I understand the next day you were permitted to don pit crew uniforms and help get the Canadian Heroes Race Car ready for the track. What was that like?
Drew: The ARCA 200 was the first race to kick off speed week, so being able to participate was wonderful. I’d like to thank Peterson Motor Sport and the entire crew who made this possible for us. I felt like a member of the team. Mark Wellings and I pushed the car out to the pit area. This was also really cool: I got a team shirt which said #06 Canadian Heroes. This was the final piece to complete the feeling of belonging to the crew.
Q: On Valentine’s Day the four of you were invited to participate in the Richard Petty Driving Experience–what was that like?
Drew: The best part of my trip was definitely getting the chance to drive a race car with 650 horse power owned by Richard Petty himself. We received driving race suits which we wore while we were driving the race cars. And a USB stick was given to each driver so we could record every movement and word said inside the cockpit. Driving at a speed of 150 miles per hour is quite a rush. The instructor is in front of you with a race car also. He declares how fast you are allowed to go. There are two lights on the back of his race car telling you to slow down or drive faster; on the right there is a green light indicating to you to drive faster and on the left there is a yellow one indicating that you should slow down. It is important to follow directions to avoid getting booted off the track. I have a whole new respect for race car drivers and their job. I drove 8 laps and was sweating from the heat, so I can only imagine bump-drafting at 190 miles per hour in extreme conditions with the heat on top of all of this.
Q: What was the rest of your week like? What was the entertainment like during Race Week leading up to the big race on Sunday?
Drew: To be honest with you the entire week was amazing and very fulfilling. We attended concerts near the Fan Zone and had a chance to hang out with some of the coolest people in the world from all over the world, the support we had over there was incredible. We gave much Canadian love to our southern flavoured friends who helped us enjoy the experience of race week in Florida. Most days, races, practices and qualifying rounds were taking place, so there was never a dull moment. Most evenings we went out to restaurants to taste some of the most delicious plates they had to offer before night time events would take place.
Q: Tell me about the Daytona 500 on Sunday, what did you guys do and what was it like to be so closely involved in one of the world’s most famous annual car races?
Drew: The Daytona 500 was pretty intense. The crashes and smell of burnt rubber will always remain in my mind as well as the entire raceway showing support to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his father. For the entire 3rd lap everyone held up three fingers in memory of Dale Senior. It was rather remarkable to see. The entire race was tight and fast. I’m a Jeff Gordon fan so I was cheering for him but when all was said and done, Trevor Baynes took the win. Being as young as he is to win a race like this is a huge deal so I was pretty stoked for him. Congrats to you on the win! We watched the beginning of the race in the Fan Zone and eventually made our way to our camper to finish off the Daytona 500.
Q: What was the best part of this experience for you?
Drew: The best part of thus experience was for sure the Richard Petty experience, getting to feel the power of the race car and the chance to see behind their eyes was incredible. This would all be impossible without Mr. Ecklund, so thank you again.
Q: Since this article will appear in a military family magazine, what would you like families all over your country to know about the support you and your comrades have experienced this past week?
Drew: To all of the Families all over the country and the world thank you for all your support to our Canadian Forces and everything you do to help us be successful and strong. To all our families and friends who have lost a loved one overseas or knows anyone who lost their lives in combat to help our nation be free, God bless. I would mostly like to thank my family and friends for helping me be who and where I am today. Thank you for your support!!!
Cpl. Andrew Latulippe has served in the Canadian Forces for four years. After a start with the armoured division at Base 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.
To learn more about the Canadian Heroes campaign visit www.canadianHeroes.com.