Car 42 will honor Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa during Sunday's race. Composite by Coffee or Die.
On Sunday, May 28, Charlotte Motor Speedway will host NASCAR’s “toughest test of man and machine” — the legendary Coca-Cola 600. In recognition of Memorial Day 2023, each race car will honor a member of the armed forces who was killed in action. Car 42, sponsored by Black Rifle Coffee Company, will recognize the sacrifice of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa. Menusa was killed in action while leading Marines in Iraq on March 27, 2003.
Menusa was serving as platoon sergeant for third platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, when he made the ultimate sacrifice during the invasion of Iraq. As engineers, Menusa’s Marines were tasked with clearing the way across the Kuwait-Iraq border for the bulk of the invasion force. Jessie Ashdown, a member of third platoon who was next to Menusa when he was killed, remembers how his platoon sergeant’s insistence on perfection resulted in the complex mission’s seamless execution.
An Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) drives through a wall and locked gate to open a path for Marines in Iraq's Al Anbar province. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ryan L. Jones.
“When we breached the Iraqi border, it went flawlessly,” Ashdown said. “We opened up a whole avenue for thousands of Marines to follow right behind us. It went exactly like we practiced, and that was primarily because of Menusa’s leadership.”
But Menusa conducted disciplined rehearsals for more reasons than just accomplishing a textbook obstacle breach. He was a 14-year veteran of the Marine Corps and had fought in the Gulf War. He knew firsthand that his largely untested platoon needed to prepare for the unpredictable nature of war.
“When everyone was waiting to cross the border, a lot of units just sat around playing spades, but Menusa still had us training,” Ashdown said. “He had us running around the base in MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) gear, ensuring we were sharp and ready for anything that might come at us.”
Joseph Menusa was a veteran of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo courtesy of Jessie Ashdown.
War’s unpredictability reared its head sooner than Menusa or his Marines had expected.
On March 27, 2003 — eight days after crossing the border — the platoon was riding in Amphibious Assault Vehicles, leading the invasion force along Iraq’s Highway 1. They had taken sporadic, inaccurate fire since the invasion began, but on this day the patrol was ambushed by accurate sniper fire.
Menusa took the spot of one of his subordinate Marines, placing himself in the exposed turret so he could direct fire. While coordinating the unit’s response, Menusa was struck in the head by an enemy bullet, which killed him instantly. He was the 52nd American killed in the Iraq war. The rest of the platoon engaged the sniper’s position and maneuvered out of the ambush site.
Menusa was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor.
A Marine with 2nd Assault Amphibian Battalion sits in the driver's seat of an AAV, 2015. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Justin T. Updegraff.
It’s been 20 years since Menusa made the ultimate sacrifice, but his legacy lives on. Sunday’s race marks a rare opportunity to honor the fallen on a public stage. The car bearing his name will be driven by Noah Gragson.
While most cars at the Coca-Cola 600 will be sporting fresh paint jobs in honor of fallen heroes, the only addition to Gragson’s car will be Menusa’s name. It will keep the same patriotic imagery it always has, including the Declaration of Independence and the names of notable battles. Gragson’s BRCC car carries the name of a different fallen service member in every race, not just on Memorial Day weekend.
Gragson joined BRCC’s motorsports team last year, following in the footsteps of some of the 24-year-old’s racing idols.
Noah Gragson will drive Black Rifle Coffee Company's car 42 in the Coca-Cola 600. Photo courtesy of Paul Bourcq.
“It feels really good to be a part of the BRCC team,” Gragson said. “In this motorsports division, there’s a lot of big-hitter guys, like Travis Pastrana, Matt Crafton, Ty Dillon, and BJ Baldwin. These are guys that I look up to and want to be like one day, so to essentially be teammates with them is pretty special.”
Sunday will mark the second time Gragson is competing in the Coca-Cola 600.
The 600-mile contest is NASCAR’s longest race. It’s unique because track conditions undergo several changes over the course of the race. It typically begins in the late afternoon, with the second leg of the competition taking place under a setting sun. The final leg of the race occurs at night, under stadium lights. The Coca-Cola 600 forces drivers to adapt to changing conditions mid-race.
Unlike the other cars competing in the Coca-Cola 600, Car 42 always has a patriotic wrap. Photo courtesy of Paul Bourcq.
Among the fans cheering Gragson on will be Menusa’s brother, David, and his family. David is a master gunnery sergeant currently serving in the Marines. Though it has been two decades since Menusa’s death, his family — and the Marines he once led in combat — vow to never forget his sacrifice. Ashdown views Sunday’s race as one more way Menusa lives on.
“It's been 20 years since he was killed, but a piece of him still lives on through every Marine that he trained today,” Ashdown said. “To see his name on the car 20 years later, and to be able to send his family to the race, ensures our hero is never forgotten.”
Read Next: ‘The Gift’ Explores the Life and Legacy of Medal of Honor Recipient Jason Dunham
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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