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June 18, 2012

The Sept. 23, 2001 “MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400″ NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race remembered

In times of great tragedy, things that seem so important, so critical to our day-to-day lives are suddenly put in check, and the things that really matter in life rise to the forefront of our consciousness.

Ironically, it’s those same trivial things in our lives that can pull us back together following tragedy and help us share, in a community, those values that had since shined through.

Such was the scene on Sept. 23, 2001 at Dover International Speedway, as close to 140,000 proud, American race fans packed the Monster Mile for the first major motorsports event following the horrifying terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

In the 12 days since New York City, Washington, D.C. and Western Pennsylvania had been attacked, the country was on full alert, and with Dover Air Force Base just a mere few miles down the road it would have been understandable for that day’s crowd to be a little subdued and on edge.

That, however, was not the case.

Every member of the packed grandstands were handed an American flag as they entered the Speedway for the “MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, and as those fans waved their flags proudly during the prerace activities there were feet stomping, hands clapping and deafening chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

As Lee Greenwood performed his song “God Bless the U.S.A.,” followed by Tanya Tucker’s singing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” there was nary a dry eye in the house, and a collection of race fans of all different backgrounds and personalities became one group of loud, proud Americans.

And then it was time to go racing.

The race played out in typical Monster Mile fashion, with fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the checkered flag, and then grabbing another flag featuring the stars and stripes for a victory lap. But to understand the emotion that played into the race that day at the Monster Mile, it’s important to look back at 2001 as a whole in the racing world.

The NASCAR season that year opened just like any other, with the excitement and thrill of one of the most popular races in the sport — the “Daytona 500” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.

The new season brought in exciting, young rookies like Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch; up-and-coming stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth; and, of course, the seasoned and skilled veterans like Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd and the biggest name in the sport, Dale Earnhardt Sr., “The Intimidator.”

The race more than lived up to the hype, with a number of lead changes, hard wrecks and great action on the track. Earnhardt even led a few times throughout the race, and coming into the final lap was running in third place and challenging for the top spot.

On the final lap, however, Earnhardt’s car got loose, he collided with driver Ken Schrader and ended up in the Turn 4 wall at Daytona. The crash looked relatively harmless compared to other wrecks in recent years, even a few in that particular race, but it was hard enough that the NASCAR community lost its favorite driver that day.

With NASCAR mourning, the season rolled on without much incident leading up to the September race at Dover. But that’s not to say that other facets of the motorsports world didn’t experience their fair share of tragedy in 2001 as well.

Just a week before Earnhardt’s death, Dave Schultz, a legend in NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racing lost a battle with cancer. Fast forward a few weeks after the “Daytona 500” to March 4, and track marshal Graham Beveridge was killed during the Formula One season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne when Jacques Villeneuve’s car climbed over the rear of Ralf Schumacher’s car and crashed into a fence behind which Beveridge was standing. That meant three fatalities in less than a month for the motorsports community.

The tragedy on the track didn’t end there, however. In April, Michele Alboreto — an Italian five-time F1 race winner and champion of the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 2001 12 Hours of Sebring — was testing at the Lauzitsring circuit in Germany and lost his life after crashing a Le Mans Prototype, just a month after his Sebring win.

All of the horrifying wrecks, however, subsided as the season wore on, and heading into September NASCAR fans were treated to a thrilling race at Richmond International Raceway that saw Rudd defeat Harvick to creep up on Jeff Gordon in the championship pursuit.

The excitement surrounding the stretch drive of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season soon subsided though. Just three days after Rudd took the checkered flag at Richmond, on a sunny Tuesday morning, the nation was shaken.

At 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, followed by United Airlines Flight 175 hitting the South Tower less than 20 minutes later. Soon after, another plane crashed into The Pentagon and then United Airlines Flight 93 was reclaimed by passengers from hijackers and crashed into a field in Western Pennsylvania.

In less than two hours, terrorism had brought the United States of America to a standstill, and that included the NASCAR world.

Most professional sporting events followed suit and postponed or all out cancelled events following the attacks, with NASCAR moving that week’s “New Hampshire 300” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event to the final weekend of the season in November. Major League Baseball also cancelled games and the Indy Racing League postponed its season finale — which was to be run on Sept. 16 — until Oct. 5.

That meant that American motorsports were on hold for a week and a half, when the NASCAR world descended upon Dover International Speedway for the Sept. 21-23, 2001 race weekend, featuring races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

With the emotional, capacity crowd on hand, the viewers at home were kept in on the prerace activities, as NBC opted to air the driver introductions, which included the reading of the charity pledge of each driver, sponsor and team to the victims of the attacks.

And then it was time to get back to a bit of normalcy, as the cars took to the track and began the running of the “MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400.” The only thing uncommon on the track that day was that many of the drivers altered their paint schemes to reflect a patriotic theme, the most dramatic of which was Kenny Schrader’s No. 36 M&M’s Pontiac, which removed every sponsor decal and was completely painted as an American flag.

After a thrilling 400 laps of action true to the reputation of the Monster Mile, it was only fitting that Earnhardt Jr., following the loss of his father earlier in the year in the “Daytona 500,” took the checkered flag for the win in one of the most emotionally charged NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in history.

“What the fans presented to us this morning before the race was some sort of an inspiration for all of us,” Earnhardt Jr. said following that race.

After he won, one of the crew members for his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet hopped the pit road wall with a giant American flag, making a beeline toward Earnhardt Jr.’s car. He handed the flag off, and in an act of pure pride for his country and patriotic solidarity with the raucous Dover crowd, the driver took the stars and stripes for a victory lap around the Monster Mile.

“I was really excited, fortunate and lucky to the be guy to win the race so I could show my support as well,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was a great feeling to have that American flag in my hand after the race.”

Ten years later, when reflecting upon that win, Earnhardt Jr. said the excitement of the win was no different than any other victory. But he added that the attitude surrounding the race, and in turn the trip to Sunoco Victory Lane, was very different.

“I don’t think the celebration was different because of the situation,” he said. “I don’t think it was much different because it surrounded that event.

“But we definitely were more aware [of the situation]. You know there were a lot of questions about whether we should be racing … Everybody was quite careful and delicate with the actions they showed and what they did, everything they said that entire weekend. You tried to have well-chosen words during that time … it was tough.

“Everybody was still nervous about what had happened and it scared a lot of people. We just went out there and raced, and what happened, happened.”

Despite his trademark modesty, Dale Earnhardt Jr. certainly contributed to one of the most memorable races in not just Monster Mile history, but the entire history of the sport of NASCAR on that September day.

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Dover Motorsports, Inc. (NYSE: DVD) is a leading promoter of NASCAR sanctioned motorsports events whose subsidiaries own and operate Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. and Nashville Superspeedway near Nashville, Tenn. The company also hosts the annual Firefly Music Festival on its property each summer. Produced by Chicago-based Red Frog Events, the four day event features more than 100 bands on seven stages in The Woodlands at Dover International Speedway. For further information, log on to www.dovermotorsports.com.