United Service Organization gets big boost from Johnson


Winston Cup driver Jimmie Johnson took off his sunglasses and waded through the mass of hustling people inside the long, dark, warehouse-like building at Fort Meade.

About halfway along a makeshift assembly line, he found an opening between Air Force Tech. Sgts. Stacia Williams and Steve Rosenfield.

They put a carton containing packages of moist wipes in front of him, and when a plastic bag was passed to him, he dropped a package into it.

Suddenly, he was one of about 80 United Service Organization volunteers working at a frantic pace Thursday, assembling 10,000 care packages for other USO organizations around the country and troops leaving from Baltimore-Washington International Airport that very afternoon.

Operation USO Care Package began after Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax scare. It intensified last week, when the government announced the mail system was so overtaxed that individuals no longer can address letters and packages to "Any Service Member." The USO is including personal messages of support in the care packages.

"The program has taken off because everyone wants to help," said Sarah Farnsworth, vice president of external relations at the USO's world headquarters at the D.C. Navy Yard. "This is something they can get their arms around."

During the 9/11 crisis, Lowe's, with Johnson as its driver, started its own program called "The Power of Pride" to help raise money for the Red Cross. The program raised more than $6 million.

The Power of Pride program has designated the USO for its support this season. Thursday, Lowe's donated $100,000 to underwrite the USO care package program and "will allow" customers to donate at stores.

Johnson, whose car will have the USO logo on its trunk lid at Texas Motor Speedway today, couldn't hide his surprise at contents for the care packages.

"They're just simple things - things we take for granted," he said. "Things we pick up every day at the local convenience store - a magazine, deodorant, a CD, a phone card, Twizzlers. The simplest things but things you can imagine mean so much to everyone who is stranded in the desert."

One military volunteer, David Marti, an avid racing fan who said he has collected "well in excess" of 1,000 Diecast miniature race cars, was in the 1991 Desert Storm conflict.

"I know what a morale booster these packages were to me," he said. "I can't be on the front line this time, but I still want to help and do my part. And I want those soldiers to know folks still care about them."

Johnson, 27, is about the same age as many of the volunteers he greeted this week. He, like many of his generation outside the military, didn't give the USO much thought until recently.

"All I could have told you was that Bob Hope went overseas to entertain the troops for the USO," Johnson said. "To be honest, I didn't understand what they did until my sponsor, Lowe's, told me about this program and their other efforts."

Johnson said his grandfather was in a tank battalion in Europe during World War II and his grandmother, who grew up in Southern California, was a test pilot while the men were off fighting in the war.

"I'm sure in some way, shape or form they benefited from the USO, especially my grandfather," said Johnson. "But even if they wouldn't have, this is such a great cause. The way I look at it, I wouldn't be racing cars and have the life I have if we weren't living in the United States."

To donate to the USO's care package program, or get more information about it, call 866-USO-GIVE or visit www.usocares.org.

Andretti's photo exhibit

Michael Andretti plans to retire from professional driving after this May's Indianapolis 500. Because of that, Andretti is seeking fan photos and other visual materials, such as posters and copies of each of the race-team autograph cards produced for him between 1983 and 2003. He's trying to build a permanent, online collection for the Andretti Family Web site, as well as a temporary exhibit at Indianapolis during May.

"Over the past 20 years, I've autographed thousands of cards and photographs of myself or my race cars for fans," Andretti said. "I've signed some outstanding action and candid photos, as well as many of myself with a fan or with someone's family members. I've often wondered about many of them, and I thought it would be interesting to look back through my career through the eyes of race fans."

Those interested in contributing to the exhibition can send them to: Paula Prime, Andretti International, 630 Selvaggio Drive, Suite 500, Nazareth, Pa. 18064. Include name, address and daytime telephone number and a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you want them scanned and returned. Information: send e-mail to paulaprime@andretti.com.

Nuts and bolts

Hagerstown Speedway's first points races will be Saturday in a triple-header program featuring Late Models, Late Model Sportsman and pure stocks. Gates open at 4 p.m. with warm-ups at 5:30 p.m. Racing begins at 6 p.m.

CART president Chris Pook, former promoter of the April 11-13 Long Beach Grand Prix, threw another challenge at the Indy Racing League last week: "I took this job [CART president] because I believe that this is great racing. And I was going to be damned if I was going to see someone stomp this into the ground because he couldn't get his own way. We believe very strongly in the fact that we have the best open-wheel series in this country and we will make believers out of everyone else."

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