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NASCAR Honors Troops During Las Vegas Celebrations

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

By Derek Turner 

LAS VEGAS – The fastest stock car drivers in the world traded their helmets and fire suits for tuxedos and cuff links last week. They gathered at the Wynn Las Vegas to celebrate the best among a group of athletes who risk their lives on Sunday afternoons in a 200 mph pursuit of sporting glory. But the guests also paused to honor those who risk their lives daily in pursuit of something greater.

“Tonight as part of NASCAR’s proud relationship with the USO, we are again extremely privileged and honored to have wounded warriors with us from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir,” NASCAR pit reporter Krista Voda told the audience at Friday’s Sprint Cup Series Awards gala.

“Thank you so much for joining us here this evening and being a part of our great sport,” announcer Mike Joy added.

The applause began slow but built steadily into a long, lingering standing ovation.

More than a dozen wounded warriors and their guests traveled with the USO to Las Vegas to participate in NASCAR’s Champions Week celebration. The USO and NASCAR have a long-running partnership as drivers visit troops overseas each offseason and it’s become a tradition for wounded servicemen and women to share in NASCAR’s end-of-year festivities.

The USO of Metropolitan Washington recruited recovering servicemen and women as part of the USO Warrior and Family Care initiative.

The troops and their guests had prime seats at the awards gala, which was emceed by Howie Mandel and included musical performances by Train, Phillip Phillips and Natasha Bedingfield.

Earlier in the day, the group got to meet 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who visited Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on a USO tour last year, as well as team owner Roger Penske. The troops also posed for pictures with the Sprint Cup trophy.

On Thursday, NASCAR took its celebration to the famed Vegas Strip, where the servicemen and women were a big part of the fanfare.

Miss Sprint Cup Kristen Beat introduced the top 12 drivers in the points standings from a stage set up to resemble victory lane. Then as the drivers made their way to their cars, parked two-wide along the street in front of Planet Hollywood, Beat introduced the wounded warriors one by one. Thousands of fans cheered both sets of heroes.

Marine Sgt. Gabriel Ledesma made his way to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car, introduced himself and then snapped a cellphone shot with his favorite driver. (Pictured above, right.)

“I used to root for Juan Pablo Montoya,” Ledesma said, “but lately I’ve been a Junior fan.”

But Marine Sgt. Cory Gritter was the real lucky one. The biggest NASCAR fan in the group, Gritter grew up in Holland, Mich., watching races with his father each week. The driver he pulled for all those years was four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Gordon invited Gritter to ride shotgun as the drivers paraded their cars up and down the Strip, turning loose the 865 horses beneath the hoods and screeching into burnouts at either end of the route.

Gordon, who finished 10th in the standings, figured he could at least outdo the burnouts performed by those who finished higher.

"You might want to put your head back,” he told Gritter, “or you’re gonna get whiplash.”

The smell of smoke and burnt rubber still hung in the air when Gritter climbed out of the car, his grin showing no signs of fading.

“That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Gritter said. “I’ve got to thank the USO for bringing us out here. This is amazing.”

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