BETHESDA, Md. – The festivities were set for NASCAR’s Tribute to the Warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Thursday.
Tables with blue tablecloths and white napkins were impeccably set for 300 guests. American Idol star Pia Toscano, flanked by two huge screens, had completed her warm-up and mike check and emcee, NASCAR pit reporter Jamie Little, had run through her script including the introduction of NASCAR President Mike Helton.
But Staff Sergeant Liam Dwyer, 32, a U.S. Marine from Southbury, Conn., wasn’t sticking around. Fresh from his rehab work in the Military Advanced Training Center rehab room, Dwyer and his driving buddy, Bob Pielli Jr., were headed south to Virginia International Raceway to put his vintage 1962 Sprite through its paces.
Pretty incredible, considering Dwyer races cars despite the loss of his left leg above the knee and severe nerve and skeletal damage to his right leg and both arms, the result of stepping on an IED in Afghanistan.
“Bob came down from Connecticut. We’ve got the car loaded up and we’re headed out to VIR in about 45 minutes,” Dwyer said. “I’m a driver and these guys are drivers – and being able to exchange driving stories with them is something special. We’ve run some of the same tracks. Other people don’t quite get the ‘it’ factor like drivers do.”
“Inspirational,” said Kurt Busch, who exchanged phone numbers with Dwyer, who aspires to drive professionally in the GRAND-AM Rolex and American Le Mans Series. “We think we have it tough some days with sessions, maybe the heat during summer runs. For (Dwyer), he’s going against those obstacles of not having all his limbs or muscles toned and driving with a big smile on his face.”
“That’s incredible,” said Brian Vickers, who spent considerable time with Dwyer. “He’s definitely the most passionate driver/fan I’ve ever met at an event like this.”
Although Dwyer’s story as a race driver was unique, his injuries were not atypical of those observed by the NASCAR visitors to Walter Reed.
“This is my generation,” observed reigning NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski. “Previous generations had Vietnam, the first Iraq and, obviously, World War II and Korea before it. But these are like guys I went to high school with. You think about what would have happened if I didn’t make it in racing. I could easily be one of these guys sitting here today because the military was something I might have taken a role in. Being here is cause for some self-reflection, for sure.”
Keselowski’s boss, team owner Roger Penske was among those also making the trip to Walter Reed.
“I’m thrilled to be able to wrap my arms around these young men and women who really give their lives and much of their bodies for the safety of our country,” Penske said. “One young man I talked to, who lost a leg, said he’s going back (into the service). Mentally, these kids are tough. That’s what makes our country so great.”
The mental part side is the toughest part of the challenge says Stephanie Morris, 24-year-old Private First Class from Toledo, Ohio, recovering from a fractured femur and broken foot suffered when two mortars exploded at a bus stop in Afghanistan.
“Sometimes it can get a bit depressing, so when someone like these drivers come by to take your mind off it, it really uplifts you,” said Morris, after chatting with Justin Allgaier and Nelson Piquet Jr. “It helps, hearing people tell me to keep up the good work – you’re making progress.
“There are days that get me down because I can’t get up and walk and do the things I used to do, like go to the gym two times a day. There are days I question ‘why.’ But it could have been a lot worse. We had four KIA (killed in action) that day, so I thank God that I’m even here.”
Stories like that send chills up the spine of longtime owner Richard Childress.
“These men and women have sacrificed so much in their lives, for us, this is the least we can do. We’re supposed to be here to make them feel better, but I’ve never left here without feeling better inside than they do.”
Liam Dwyer was leaving Thursday with a pretty special feeling.
“I had the challenge in my mind that I wanted to race again and show other people that regardless of your limitations, you can still do what you want to,” Dwyer said. “The generosity of the NASCAR community to come in … These guys wanted come in to speak to the patients. We appreciate that.”
Other NASCAR celebrities making the visit to Walter Reed on Thursday included drivers Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Brian Scott, Sam Hornish Jr. and Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon and Miss Sprint Cup Brooke Werner.