Growing up in Holland, Mich., Cory Gritter almost always spent Sunday afternoons with his father in front of the television, watching stock cars tear around oval tracks at ridiculous speeds.
Gritter’s favorite was the No. 24 piloted by Jeff Gordon, perhaps NASCAR’s most polarizing driver.
Years later and nearly 1,900 miles away, Gritter was riding shotgun Thursday when he looked to his left and Gordon — his racing idol — looked back and smiled.
“You might want to put your head back,” Gordon told him, “or you’re gonna get whiplash.”
With that, Gordon turned loose the 865 horses beneath the hood of his DuPont Chevrolet and spun into a burnout in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip, sending smoke rising over the asphalt and palm trees.
“That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Gritter said afterward, still beaming. “I’ve got to thank the USO for bringing us out here. This is amazing.”
Gritter is now a sergeant in the Marine Corps, serving in a wounded warrior battalion at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he’s receiving treatment for injuries caused by an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan in 2009.
He is part of a group of wounded service members from Bethesda and Fort Belvoir, Va., brought to Las Vegas by the USO to participate in NASCAR’s Champions Week celebration. Thursday’s event, dubbed NASCAR Victory Lap, included the top 12 drivers in the Sprint Cup points standings parading their cars up and down Las Vegas Boulevard and doing burnouts at either end of the route as thousands of fans cheered from the roadside and from pedestrian bridges above the street. Gritter’s fellow troops looked down from atop a double-decker bus riding with the convoy of stock cars.
Gritter was singled out because he is the biggest NASCAR fan in the group. When Gordon heard that he is Gritter’s favorite driver, the four-time champion eagerly agreed to bring the Marine along for the ride. Gordon even handed off his iPhone to Gritter so he could snap photos and document the experience.
The outing is part of the USO’s Warrior and Family Care initiative and was coordinated by the USO of Metropolitan Washington. It is actually Gritter’s second Las Vegas trip with the USO, though the first involved more relaxation and less adrenaline.
“This was cool,” Gritter said. “My dad would love this. I can’t wait to tell him about it.”
—By Derek Turner, USO Senior Editor