When the first World 600 race roared to life at the new Charlotte Motor Speedway in June 1960, Mike Kleban watched from the grandstand.
In time, his favorite spot to soak in the action would be the infield. And that’s where he’ll be Sunday for the Coca-Cola 600, camped out with friends on “Redneck Hill.”
Kleban, 72, of Harrisburg, has been a race fan since age 12, but in recent years he’s added another dimension to his love of the sport. Along with members of what he calls the “team,” he buys discounted tickets to the event through the speedway’s “Let the Troops Race” program and hosts about 30 active duty soldiers, many from Fort Stewart, Ga.
“I know what the troops are going through in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Kleban, an Air Force veteran who was stationed 15 months in Pakistan. “Here they’re able to let it all hang out and have a good time and not have a worry in the world. I’m a very patriotic person and want to give back to them for the freedom they’re giving me.”
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Kleban and his friends provide food and beverages and hang out with the soldiers.
“I tell my team that these guys have been through hell and if they want to open up and talk about it to listen,” Kleban said. “If not, that’s fine.”
Sgt. 1st Class Marcus Randolph, with the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, called the speedway gatherings “a great experience.”
A combat veteran, he’s served four tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Getting an invitation to see the race for free “shows someone cares,” said Randolph, 39. “They’re great guys.”
The team includes Kleban’s son, Corey; Marshall Burgess of Charlotte; Larry McMahan of Hickory; Kenneth Williams of Asheville; Trent Williams of Arden; Grant Hobday of Greenville, S.C.; Sam Vacca of Charlotte; Monica Cobb of Asheville; and Lauren Brandes of Harrisburg.
Kleban’s helping the troops has brought him a new level of enjoyment and satisfaction.
His introduction to stock car racing came at the old Charlotte fairgrounds speedway on Sugar Creek Road. When the security officer turned his back, Kleban and his buddies climbed over the fence and watched such pioneering NASCAR race car drivers as Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts.
When Charlotte Motor Speedway opened in 1960, Kleban sat in the grandstand for the first race. One hundred laps into the event, he found himself coated with a thin layer of tire dust.
Kleban felt squashed up against other spectators in the stands and didn’t like having to crawl over people when he made a restroom stop.
And he learned some basics the hard way: “If you don’t eat enough and drink too much, they carry you out,” Kleban said.
Taking all that into consideration, he adopted the infield about 35 years ago.
If a race became boring, he got up and walked around, enjoying the freedom.
He found the infield a world of its own.
“It’s a bunch of rednecks having fun,” Kleban said. “A bunch of rednecks that are great people. To me, racing is about the fellowship of the infield. Everybody’s like one big family.”
Kleban once traveled the NASCAR racing circuit from Daytona, Fla., to Martinsville, Va. But he finally settled on Charlotte for the Sprint Cup and Coca-Cola 600.
At the speedway, Kleban and friends gather around an all-purpose camper flying the flags of the four branches of the military service. Tables are set up under two 10-by-20-foot canvas tarps. There’s a smoker, coolers with beer, water and other beverages and a wide-screen TV.
Kleban lives just 3 miles from the speedway, but he sometimes spends the night at the camp, crawling into his Chevy pickup.
“I sleep like a baby,” he said.
The infield is his idea of heaven. Joining him at the Coca-Cola 600 will be 60 to 80 family members and friends, some from as far away as Canada.
The presence of military veterans, including a 90-year-old World War II veteran from Pennsylvania, will make it an even more special occasion.
“When you see these guys you’d be amazed,” Kleban said. “They come up here and let loose. They thank us, but we want to thank them. We had to pay them back. That’s what we’re trying to do.”