Gary Sinise sidelined but will be at Martinsville in spirit

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Actor Gary Sinise may not be at Martinsville Speedway in person, but he will be there in spirit, and doubtless he’ll be thinking of Marine Corporal J.B. Kerns as he waves the green flag to start the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday.

There’s a kinship between Sinise and Kerns, the depth of which transcends the “Lieutenant Dan” character Sinise played in the movie “Forrest Gump.”

Lt. Dan lost his legs in the Vietnam War, but that was make-believe. In stark reality, Kerns is a triple amputee, having lost his legs and right arm in the explosion of an IED (improvised explosive device) during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Though Kerns is a NASCAR fan, this is his first visit to Martinsville. As honorary starter, he’ll wave the green flag and unleash the power of 43 800-horsepower stock cars.

Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation/Gary Sinise Foundation Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 30, 2012 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Tyler Barrick/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation/Gary Sinise Foundation Ford, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 30, 2012 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Tyler Barrick/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“With me being a longtime NASCAR fan, it’s a pretty big honor for me to wave the flag and everything, and also, Matt Kenseth having my name on his car, too,” Kerns told the NASCAR Wire Service. “I’ve been following Matt since probably ’04.”

Kenseth is sporting a special paint scheme on his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. The car pays tribute to Kerns’ service as part of an initiative by Sinise’s foundation and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation to raise money to build a “smart home” for the veteran in his home town of Ararat, Va.

“One morning I got up, and I got a phone call, and it was Frank Siller from the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation,” Kerns said. “He was saying, ‘We want to build you a house.’ At first I was in disbelief, but as it’s coming along, I’m realizing it’s all real.”

Sinise was scheduled to take part in those fundraising efforts and to serve as grand marshal for Sunday’s race. An auto accident on Friday, in which Sinise was involved as a passenger, forced a change of plans, as well as the cancelation of a concert Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band was scheduled to play Saturday night at Martinsville High School.

Sinise, who was not seriously injured in the accident, has promised to reschedule the concert, but no date has been set.

Though Sinise won’t be at the race to see Kerns wave the flag and to renew their acquaintance, his efforts and those of the Siller Foundation will have no less of an impact.

“I met Gary once,” Kerns said. “I hung out with him for a day. He’s a really good guy, too. He’s not like you’d think an actor or celebrity would be. He’s a really chilled, down-to-earth guy.”

The track announced Saturday that Richard Petty will serve as grand marshal in Sinise’s place.

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