That NASCAR hat

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Vincent De Groot
  • 185th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

It makes sense that people in the fighter jet business would be attracted to NASCAR motor sports because of similarities in noise, speed, and the possibility of death at every turn.

As the 2024 NASCAR cup series gets the green flag at the start of this month, race fans may especially appreciate the story of how the motor sport inspired the creation of an official U.S. Air Force ball cap dubbed, “the NASCAR hat.”

There were other unit hats, but for Iowa Air Guard members who were part of the 185th Fighter Wing in the early 2000’s, the short-lived NASCAR hat was one of the most cherished.

The 185th FW organizational ball cap got its unofficial name because of its unashamed similarities to NASCAR hats from the 1990s. 

If names like Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gorden, Dale Earnhardt, Darell Waltrip or Terry Labonte are familiar; the concept of the 185th NASCAR hat can be best understood.

Shortly after Colonel Tom Considine became the 185th Fighter Wing commander he, with the help of Senior Master Sgt. Bruce Johnson, crowdsourced a new unit ball cap design. 

When the hat was first revealed in 2000 it was obvious that among Considine, Johnson or the 185th collective there was a significant NASCAR fan base.

What Considine didn’t know in the summer of 1999 was that within months after commissioning the snazzy hat, the unit would receive word that their fighter mission was about to end.

In many ways the creation of the NASCAR hat was a half century in the making. During the decade of the 90’s the 185th Fighter Wing celebrated 50 years as a fighter unit. 

The Iowa Air Guard unit had just graduated from being a Fighter Group to becoming a Fighter Wing which grew the mission.

The 1990s also saw one of the unit’s most significant airframe changes when they switched from flying A-7 Corsairs to flying the premier multi-role F-16 fighter jet. 

Members of the Wing at that time had inherited a special ethos from the unit’s Vietnam War Veterans who had a significant influence on molding the current generation.  When the F-16s arrived, unit members and leadership were supremely confident in their role as a legitimate, modern Fighter Wing on par with their active-duty counterparts.

The 1990s also saw a renaissance in DOD spending as post war budgets ramped back up spreading the wealth of modernized weapons systems.

Each change often came with a new unit ball cap. Air Force organizational ball caps had been around from the beginning of the service. When the historic changeover from the original green utility uniform to the BDU happened in the 1980s, uniform regulations still retained allowances for organizational hats as late as 2010.

It is important to note that Air Force organizational ball caps were historically subdued single colors. Most 185th unit hats were dark blue, black, grey, or olive. Hats around the Air Force often didn’t included much more than the unit nomenclature.

Air Force Instruction 36-2903 from November 2001, found on the Air University library website, provides some clues on what the baseball caps at that time were supposed to looked like. 

The regulation included words like “modest.” Delineations were described in respect to numbers of colors used. There was also language that described the addition of “designs” and so on. 

There was nothing modest about the 185th NASCAR hat. When the hat was created, it was obvious that interpretations of uniform regulations were treated as a matter of semantics.

Most of the NASCAR hat’s predecessors followed convention, but some early 185th photos show other hats and uniforms from the 1950s that also had some pizazz.

Photos from a 1956 aircraft gunnery meet at Nellis Air Force Base show Air National Guard aircraft maintainers wearing white unit hats and ironically white uniforms.

Dressed to impress, the Air National Guard F-84 team had unit hats embossed with the text “132nd” (Fighter Group) on the front of the hat. The hats even had lightning bolts stitched on top, in homage to the Thunderjet aircraft flown by the Group's 124th ,174th and 173rd Fighter Squadrons from the Iowa and Nebraska Air National Guard.

Gunnery competitions that began in the 1950s, served as a way to test and sharpen skills of both pilots and aircraft maintainers. The mostly friendly competitions became more than just evaluating aviation and maintenance prowess, however. 

Participants looked for ways to gain an extra edge by adding elements of flare, like special hats and even special uniforms. Making a big deal out of aerial competition events helped breath excitement into the events.

With added enthusiasm, spending extra time shining boots and ironing uniforms were seen as minor details.

One-upmanship became standard procedure for members of fighter units who attended events like William Tell or Gun Smoke.  The added element of a cool hat helped spur excitement and encourage esprit de corps. 

If a special hat could be created for a special event, it made sense that the evolution of the organizational ball cap would give rise to a special hat that could be worn every day.

When the NASCAR hat was first available in the fall of 2000, unit members were thrilled. Almost everything about the new 185th ball cap was unconventional, which made it even better. 

Former unit members who were familiar with the old 36-2903 recognized that the NASCAR hat design walked up to the edge of the Air Force regulation guidance and definitely stepped over the line.

Suitable for Daytona, the hat had a two-tone black and royal blue bill. The hat featured unconventional bent yellow stitching on the bill that surrounded the unit’s iconic gothic bat graphic.

The front of the hat had a depiction of a silver F-16 with arched “185th Fighter Wing” text that included a blue stitched drop shadow. The words “Sioux City, Iowa” were also sewn on the hat near a small unit patch. 

“It was highly noticed,” said 185th Air Refueling Wing Lt. Colonel Tim Christensen, who worked as an F-16 crew chief at the time, “We loved it.”

Christensen recalled wearing the “NASCAR hat” to a Flag exercise during that time. He said he had not forgotten both the positive reactions and scrutiny the hat received.

Other 185th unit members from that time confirm that saying, “the hat was noticed” may have been an understatement. 

Ironically, during the same month the new 185th NASCAR hat became available in the fall of the 2000 it was announced that the unit would lose their fighter jets and convert to Air Refueling.  

Unit members could wear the NASCAR hat for the next 24 months with the knowledge that the fighter wing mission was ending. 

Interestingly, the old hats often served as historical markers. The hats marked the time as the unit graduated from the 174th Squadron to the 185th Group and eventually becoming the 185th Wing.

When the unit converted to the KC-135 the change brought with it the Wing’s last organizational hat. The new Air Refueling hat was a much more subdued black ball cap with a neat “185 ARW, Iowa Air Guard” stitched on the crown. 

For unit members at the time, the less flashy 185th ARW ball cap served as a metaphoric precursor to the eventual elimination of ball caps altogether.

Current uniform regulations describe the demise of organizational ball caps in part due to a desire to standardize the uniform.  Changes were also a result of Airmen increasingly finding themselves “outside the wire” in hostile environments, where drawing attention to oneself is a bad thing.

With the 2011 rollout of the Airman Battle Uniform and subsequent Operational Camouflage uniform in 2019 the current uniform regulation boiled it down to a simple statement, “Ball caps are not authorized.”

Nearly twenty-five years after the NASCAR hat, the 185th is again seeking to position itself for its next mission. With the inevitability of change that comes with the passage of time perhaps there may still be hope for reviving the old organizational hat. 

This past fall, in September of 2023 the William Tell air-to-air competition got the green flag to start again after a nearly 20 year hiatus. The competition’s return to the Savannah Air National Guard’s Air Dominance Center could be just the thing to usher in what was old and make it new again.

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