Daniel Freeman Swaim and his cousin Cruz Gonzalez had one thing in common – they both knew early on what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Daniel wanted to be a Marine.
Cruz wanted to be in NASCAR.
Both men saw their dreams come to fruition.
After graduating with high honors from Forbush High School in East Bend, North Carolina, Swaim went off to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where he was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. His first tour of duty in Iraq began in August 2005.
Gonzalez works at Richard Childress Racing as a shop mechanic and on weekends goes over-the-wall as the gas man on the No. 31 Cup and No. 21 XFINITY Series teams.
“Daniel is an only child. He grew up very down to earth with great parents,” said Gonzalez. “His grandfather was in the military and it was something he always wanted to pursue. He wanted to take on that responsibility. I think that’s what makes him so special. And it makes his parents special because they allowed their only child to enlist during wartime.
“Daniel chose the Marines because they are the first ones in and they make stuff happen.”
On Nov. 10, 2005, while conducting combat operations against enemy forces during Operation Steel Curtain in Karabilah, Iraq, Swaim passed away from injuries sustained from an improvised explosive device.
“I do remember when my mom called and told me what happened,” elaborated Gonzalez. “And that was … it was ugh, (clears throat and sighs, difficult to speak). It was super hard to comprehend because you didn’t ever hear of it happening to anyone around where I grew up. My family is so big on that side and we’ve all been extremely blessed that nothing really bad has ever happened to anyone until that day. Everyone just took a step back and asked, ‘What now?’
“My mindset went to his parents because he was an only child so it’s a hard deal,” he said. “We live in the world we live in, but they are living in a world that gives us the capability to enjoy the world we live in. It’s the biggest gift I think you can ever give anyone and he did just that.”
A couple of years ago, Gonzalez called his uncle asking for his blessing to run Swaim’s battalion patch on his helmet. The patch is a constant reminder to keep things on-and-off the track in perspective.
“Whenever I get that ‘job’ feeling, I look at what Daniel did and know that was a real job. That was the job that makes what I get to do easy. It’s just a friendly reminder to not take this so serious and make sure that no one ever forgets what he or any of those men and women who serve ever did.”
This Memorial Day weekend during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Gonzalez’s salute to his cousin goes one step further thanks to NASCAR’s 600 Miles of Remembrance campaign. The program honors and remembers the men and women who died fighting for this country. Instead of driver Ryan Newman’s name on the No. 31 Grainger Chevrolet windshield, it will be LCpl Daniel Freeman Swaim.
“When I found out RCR was putting Daniel’s name on the car, it was definitely a watery-eyed moment,” smiled Gonzalez. “I couldn’t wait to tell his parents, Mike and Becky. I wanted to tell my sister and all of my family that it was going to happen. A spirit of excitement came over me. I was just glad to know that someone who touched so many people in his community would have his name on our race car. Whoever attends is going to see the name of a man who was a true hero of mine. I don’t think anyone can take that away from him. I think everyone is going to love it and I’m going to love it.”