A Healing Moment
by Daniel J. Simone, Ph.D. September 21, 2020
This Week in NASCAR History, nineteen years ago at Dover, NASCAR racing resumed after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
September 23, 2001
Dover International Speedway (formerly Dover Downs International Speedway) has hosted 102 NASCAR premier series races. Nicknamed “The Monster Mile,” the one-mile, concrete, high-banked track has provided plenty of fierce on-track battles, thrilling finishes, and post-race confrontations since its first NASCAR premier series race in 1969. The MBNA-Cal Ripken 400, held on September 23, 2001, may have been the most memorable.
It had been nearly two weeks since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Americans were doing their best to get back to normal--a “new” normal. And so, after a layoff, NASCAR got back to the business of racing. (The race scheduled at Loudon, New Hampshire, the week before was rescheduled for late November).
That Sunday afternoon 140,000 spectators crowded the grandstands, nearly every fan waving an American flag or wearing something to represent the nation. Before the race Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem and “God Bless America,” and Lee Greenwood followed with “God Bless the USA.” Displays of patriotism, resilience and support appeared on the 43 race cars. Ken Schrader’s No. 36 Pontiac Grand Prix stood out most of all, featuring a paint scheme consisting entirely of stars and stripes—and no sponsors.
Dale Jarrett (2014) driving for fellow Hall of Famer, Robert Yates (2018) sat on the pole. Before the race, Jarrett wore a cap that honored the New York City Fire Department. Alongside was another Hall of Fame combination; Bobby Labonte (2020) lined up second driving for Joe Gibbs (2020). In Row 2, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021) started third next to Ricky Rudd.
The race featured plenty of action, drama, and hot tempers often associated with Dover. Earnhardt dominated early in the race but in the second half of the event Ricky Rudd appeared to be the class of the field. Until, with a little over 50 miles to go, Rudd was bumped by Rusty Wallace (2013) and put out of contention for the win. Jarrett moved to the front and briefly held the lead. On Lap 362, Earnhardt passed Jarrett and remained in front to pick up his fourth career premier series victory.
What followed was unforgettable for everyone at the track and the millions who tuned in on television. Earnhardt Jr. stopped his Chevy Monte Carlo and was handed an American flag by one of his Dale Earnhardt Inc. crewmen. He proceeded to drive around the track in the opposite direction and complete a “Polish victory lap” with the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze.
Earnhardt Jr. is getting inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2021, which will also be the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In June 2018, the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City opened an exhibit entitled “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11.” Their curators did a fantastic job obtaining artifacts and gathering stories representing NASCAR and many other sports, as America moved forward in the wake of tragedy. The hood from Schrader’s car is featured with additional content related to the race at Dover. If you find yourself in The Big Apple, try to check out the museum and that exhibit. You will be glad you did.
Sports can provide a welcome distraction and give us an opportunity to reflect, remember, and honor. Sports can represent a return to normalcy and help rally a nation. NASCAR and its competitors and fans played their own small parts at Dover that September afternoon in 2001.
Here is the rest of This Week in NASCAR History:
September 21, 1997
Mark Martin (2017) won his first of three consecutive fall races at what is now Dover International Speedway. Martin, driving for fellow Hall of Famer and car owner Jack Roush (2018), started from the pole and passed Kyle Petty for the lead with 20 laps to go to take the victory. The triumph marked the first time Martin and Roush would enter Dover’s victory lane in the premier series. The race had only one caution flag—certainly less attrition than usually expected at “The Monster Mile.” Dale Earnhardt (2010) was a distant runner-up; “The Intimidator” finished over 10 seconds behind Martin, who pocketed $196,305 for Roush and his team. Petty, Bobby Labonte (2020), and Dale Jarrett (2014) rounded out the top five.
September 22, 1985
Richie Evans (2012) captured nine championships in what is now the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. His final championship season was in 1985, where “The Rapid Roman” earned his eighth title in a row. Evans won twelve races that year in his iconic No. 61 and picked up his final career victory on this date in 1985. The triumph came in the star-studded All-In-One Twins, a 100-lap event on the .333-mile Oxford Plains Speedway in Maine. Evans had already clinched the championship before he lost his life in a practice accident at Martinsville a little over a month later.
September 24, 1961
NASCAR Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly (2015), driving for car owner Bud Moore (2011), topped Rex White (2015) for the victory in front of a full house of 18,000 spectators in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway. “Little Joe” assumed the lead from White on lap 418 and just when it looked like Weatherly had the race wrapped up, he ran out of fuel on the last lap—barely hanging on to claim the $3,595 purse. Junior Johnson (2010) finished third, despite leading 259 laps. Weatherly won 9 of the 25 races he entered that season and eight of those wins came driving for Moore.
September 25, 1949
The inaugural NASCAR premier series season took place in 1949, the only year in which the series was called the “Strictly Stock Division.” Red Byron (2018) won the second race of the eight-race season at the Daytona Beach Road-Course. In the sixth event, Byron dominated on the dirt at Martinsville Speedway, driving an Oldsmobile owned by Raymond Parks (2017) and wrenched by Red Vogt. More than 10,000 fans watched Byron take the lead after frontrunner Fonty Flock lost a right front wheel just past the halfway point of the 200-lap contest. Byron would go on to prevail by three laps over second-place finisher Lee Petty (2011) and collect the $1,500 first prize. Byron would go to become the first champion of the series, following up his NASCAR National Modified championship from 1948.
September 26, 1954
Herb Thomas was the first driver to earn two NASCAR premier series championships, taking top honors in 1951 and again in 1953. He had another outstanding season in 1954, earning 12 wins and eight poles on the year. He also swept both events at the challenging Langhorne (Pennsylvania) Speedway. He won earlier that May at the one-mile circular-shaped track just outside of Trenton, New Jersey. Then, in the September race, Thomas started from the pole in his Hudson Hornet and held off Lee Petty (2011) and Hershel McGriff for the win in the 250-lap event. In NASCAR’s early years, Langhorne drew some of the biggest fields, crowds, and purses. This particular race fielded 64 entrants, setting their sights on the $2,450 first prize.
September 27, 1987
In 1987, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick (2017) hired Darrell Waltrip (2012) to drive the No. 17 Chevy Monte Carlo. The new combination went winless through most of the 1987 season, until Waltrip broke through in dramatic fashion at Martinsville Speedway in the Goody’s 500. He found himself in third-place behind Dale Earnhardt (2010) and Terry Labonte (2016) when the green flag waved for a restart with three laps to go. On the final lap, Labonte passed Earnhardt for the lead—briefly. As Earnhardt tried to get the lead back, Waltrip took advantage of a tiny opening when the three Chevys entered the third turn. Waltrip took his car low and nudged Labonte into Earnhardt, giving Waltrip and Hendrick Motorsports their first win together—and $43,830. Earnhardt and Labonte (both understandably not pleased with their results) took second and third and were the only other drivers to complete all 500 circuits.