20 Years Later, The Impact Of Nascar’s First Race After 9/11 Lives On
On the morning of Sept. 23, 2001, 140,000 American flags measuring in at 11.5” x 17” were neatly stacked at the gates of Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del.
The first state unexpectedly became the site of Nascar’s first event after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hosting the largest crowd in the nation after the attack. Just a three-hour drive from New York City and two hours away from Washington, D.C., Dover became the face of America’s heightened security efforts in the weeks after the worst tragedy in the nation’s history.
As every attendee for the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 prepared for advanced security, they came together as one in the grandstands. The 140,000 attendees cried together and cheered together in the moments leading up to the roar of 43 racecars at the one-mile oval.
“We had just about every law enforcement agency from the state and federal levels here — ATF, FBI, you name it — they were all here,” Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports, Inc., said. “They coordinated all kinds of eventualities.
“Threats could come from any direction, so they were looking at what could happen by air, cars running into the grandstand, people with bombs strapped to them or bombs hidden in trash cans. There was such a focus on not letting anything happen.”
Prior to the race, there were multiple reports sent to Dover about suspicious people who may threaten the weekend’s activities. With heightened security, every incident was taken seriously, even if the reports were coming from hundreds of miles away.
“Law enforcement later told me we got a report from Sussex County [New Jersey] about a group of people standing around a crop duster speaking Arabic,” McGlynn said. “There was another report about suspicious people in New Castle County. Given that we were going to have 200,000 people here over three days, we really needed to be on our game.”
NBC’s pre-race coverage started with a major shift in tone from its usual hype. Instead of opening with racecars on pit road, the cameras focused on the Dover Air Force Base, six miles away from the track.
“On a normal race weekend, that base provides 1,200 volunteers,” NBC play-by-play commentator Bill Weber announced to the audience. “This weekend, those 1,200 people are a little busier. The Nascar family is honored to share this weekend with them.”
As thousands of cars pulled off North Dupont Highway on a crystal clear Sunday morning, they understood how different this 400-mile race would be. Instead of seeing fans flood the gates with the colors of their favorite drivers, everyone wore red, white and blue.
It was literally a sea of America’s colors, with Americans even painting the flag on their faces.
No coolers or backpacks were allowed inside of the facility on that day, a rarity at a Nascar race.
“It morphed from concern as they came from the parking lot as they had to go through all of the security measures to get into the speedway,” McGlynn said. “Once they got into the speedway with their American flags, they just took over.”
A massive military parade took place on the frontstretch, with troops standing atop military vehicles, waving American flags. And, just 12 days after the attack, 10 first responders from New York City and Shanksville appeared at the speedway.
"It’s hard to describe the emotions I was feeling as I began to sing,” Lee Greenwood, who performed “God Bless The U.S.A.” on that Sunday afternoon, said. “Wounded, like all of America, it was a difficult place for me to be. Wanting to represent the country and fight back my personal emotions, I will never forget the events of 9/11 nor singing at Dover for the Nascar race to uplift America.”
This was already a year of mourning for Nascar. On Feb. 18, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was tragically killed in the final turn on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Suddenly, the sport was without its voice and pioneer.
When the attacks occurred, it left Nascar in a scurry for the second time in just seven months. The sanctioning body postponed the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — the final race of the year — until Nov. 23, originally slated for Sunday, Sept. 16.
Then-Nascar President Mike Helton became one of the faces of the sport. He is the man who publicly addressed America from the Daytona International Speedway media center when Earnhardt died, and he led the efforts to make sure a race could happen safely.
“There was a lot of conversation, dialogue and effort that had to go in to ensure we did it as safely as possible," Helton said. “It came with some uniqueness because we never had anything like this happen to us.
“Denis McGlynn and his staff absolutely put the parts and pieces together in a way that really made that weekend so special.
As Tanya Tucker started singing the Star-Spangled Banner at Dover, everyone joined in unison. Jeff Gordon, seen on pit road, was seen murmuring the words, as were the thousands of people in the stands.
“Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,” she sang softly.
“Woooo!” the crowd roared.
“O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“Wooo! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” the fans shouted for 20 seconds straight until they saw dozens of doves fly into the air.
The 43 drivers prepared to enter their workspace for 400 miles of racing. Some, such as Kenny Schrader, removed their normal paint schemes and adorned the American flag instead.
And when the drivers hugged their loved ones before entering the cars, the B-roll on NBC showed one sign, in particular, that stands out to this day.
“To Our Heroes, THANK YOU!”
“It was electrifying,” McGlynn said. “It was such a patriotic day.”
“There was a part of me that felt Nascar was helping the country,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said last week. “You looked up in the grandstands and every person there was holding an American flag. That made your heart stop and you had a massive sense of pride well up inside of you.
“I don’t think you will ever see a more patriotic moment in racing.”
As the drivers prepared to take the green flag, the crowd of 140,000 people wouldn’t settle down. It was time for America to begin the healing process.
“By us going back to the racetrack, putting on a race, celebrating the country and showing our patriotism, it was helping the rest of the country understand we have to get back up and keep moving forward,” Earnhardt said.
But the work to make the event happen wasn’t easy by any means necessary. Besides the added security, Nascar needed to communicate with the drivers in order to tell them what they were about to experience.
Back then, there were no mass emails, social media or texting threads for drivers to communicate with one another. For a while, they were left in the dark as to what would happen.
“There was so much uncertainty and unknowns about how long we would not race,” Earnhardt said. “No one knew how it would impact everyday life or the industry. No one knew what the next steps were. It was kind of scary, honestly. You were hearing a lot of speculation, not knowing exactly what Nascar had planned and what they were going to do.”
While the drivers wanted to do their job and race, they understood the difficulty of making such a decision. Nascar handled the situation delicately, with Helton at the helm.
An already difficult year for Nascar just became more challenging. For the second time in seven months, all eyes were on America’s largest form of motor sports. Whatever Nascar would do, the rest of the sporting world would soon follow suit. If Nascar could get back going, it was a sign other sports could as well.
After plenty of internal deliberation, Helton dialed McGlynn at his Dover office. It was go time.
“Mike is a man of few words,” McGlynn said. “He just called and said, ‘You’re up.’ He said there’s going to be a lot going on and we’ll be talking a lot during the week.”
But once the drivers arrived at the racetrack, things calmed down — at least for them — for the time being.
Friday and Saturday’s at-track events went by smoothly. Everyone noticed the heightened security, but no one dared to speak about the unthinkable events that struck our nation, just 165 miles northeast from Dover.
Throughout the weekend, conversations in the garage went on as normal. All of the drivers and team members just wanted some sense of normalcy. After all, nothing about the weekend was actually normal besides cars hitting the pavement on the Monster Mile.
“It felt like this is where we belong,” Earnhardt said about arriving at the track. “This is what is comfortable and this is what feels right. With anything like that — what happened to me in my life personally — I always felt like when I got to the racetrack, it was like entering a family home. You’re around people who love and respect you. Being at the racetrack, for me personally, was a very safe place.”
Earnhardt was quite lost after the 9/11 attacks. It truly hit him at his core. Alone in his North Carolina home, his brain was in overdrive.
The anger of unexpectedly losing his father, who was the face of the sport, never left the mind of the 26-year-old racer. Not only was the elder Earnhardt a legend in of himself, but he gave his son his first Nascar Cup Series opportunity with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated in a bright red No. 8 Chevrolet that instantly became an icon.
Even though Earnhardt dominated and won at Daytona just after Independence Day — his first triumph since his dad’s death — life was not the same. He may have been able to put on a smile for a few moments at a time, but inside, he was hurting.
“I was a boat lost at sea,” he said. “I was floundering in the distance, not sure what to do.”
And when the Twin Towers fell, Earnhardt watched, just like the rest of the world. But for him, he understood — to an extent — the pain of the families who just watched their loved ones perish.
“We had this happen to the country, and there was a part of me that could relate in a way to a lot of people,” Earnhardt, who paused for a moment, said. “I think anyone who lost somebody that year can relate to the loss a lot of people were feeling in that moment and during the several weeks afterwards. It’s hard for me to articulate it.
“I don’t know if it’s something I’ve ever come to understand. It’s hard for me to understand how and why all of this happened in the short amount of time that it did. It was a really difficult time, and a lot of people were dealing with difficulties. In a way, I felt like when 9/11 happened and so many people lost their lives, a part of me was like, ‘I know what that feels like.’ It’s the suddenness of it.”
These are the thoughts that Earnhardt had on his mind when he strapped into his Chevrolet on that Sunday afternoon.
When Tucker finished singing the National Anthem, the drivers’ arms were filled with goosebumps. They never witnessed — or felt — anything like that day.
“At that moment at that race, every fan in the stands had the same thing on their mind and only one thing on their mind,” Earnhardt said. “That was their pride in the USA and the fact that we’re going to come back from this. Nobody was worried about what their driver was going to do that day. Nobody was pulling against another driver to do poorly. It was one rare moment where everybody at the sporting event was thinking, feeling and wishing for the same exact thing. That’s a really cool experience.”
For a while, it became a regular Nascar race. Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte led the field to the green flag, with Earnhardt starting in third. By the third lap, his No. 8 car took the lead.
Throughout the 400-mile race, Earnhardt traded the lead back and forth with Ricky Rudd, whose No. 28 car featured a large American flag on its hood. But with 39 laps remaining in the race, Earnhardt soared past Jarrett and cruised to his second victory of the season.
Instead of performing a traditional burnout (where a driver burns the tires on a car and fills the stands with smoke) he opted to go with a more somber celebration. Earnhardt grabbed an American flag from one of his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew members, and turned his No. 8 car around so fans could see through his window. The Polish Victory Lap, which is coined after the late Alan Kulwicki, is a tradition Earnhardt knew would be perfect for this occasion.
“If anybody asks me what’s one thing I would take away from 50 years here, it’s going to be that weekend,” McGlynn said. “It was just that big.”
To this day, Earnhardt has trouble putting the day of Sept. 23, 2001. The win months after the loss of his beloved father, combined with his heartfelt sorrow about the terrorist attack, is one he simply cannot understand.
But what he can comprehend as he reflects on that day 20 years later is that the triumph helped heal more people than he realized at the time.
“I felt like we were helping all of the people in attendance that day — maybe even the people watching at home — to understand that it’s OK to stand up and move forward,” he said. “That was what the message was from Nascar that day.
“Hopefully, us having that race and doing what we did that afternoon, helped some people realize they had to take care of themselves and of each other.”
And 20 years later, Nascar’s security is much more intricate than it once was. Dover, on that day, was the start of Nascar’s version of a miniature airport.
Each Nascar track has its own security protocols to protect fans, drivers and team members. But it’s the process of making sure everyone is safe that stands out to many in the industry.
“It’s the inspections at the gate,” McGlynn said of the biggest change in security over the past 20 years. “The inspections of coolers, backpacks, electric ones for metal detecting and they’re all routine now.
“It’s faster than the airport because we have so many gates. It’s the same basic procedure, except we don’t ask people to take their shoes off. They’re all wanded, and there are some gates where people just walk through metal detectors.”
It was that crystal clear fall afternoon — eerily similar to the morning of 9/11 — that led Nascar to implementing security changes that are still in use to this day.