That horrible day: Dover Speedway officials recall how NASCAR fans responded after 9/11

The stands were a sea of American flags, thanks to race sponsor MBNA. (Delaware State News file)

The stands were a sea of American flags, thanks to race sponsor MBNA. (Delaware State News file)

DOVER — Fifteen years later the reaction is palpable.

Ask Denis McGlynn to recall an unprecedented Sunday race and deep emotions surface.

With the nation still reeling from terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Dover International Speedway randomly became a spot for healing to begin less than two weeks later.

CEO Denis McGlynn said everybody was on hyper alert in the days leading up to the Sept. 23, 2001, NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway. (Delaware State News file)

CEO Denis McGlynn said everybody was on hyper alert in the days leading up to the Sept. 23, 2001, NASCAR race at Dover International Speedway. (Delaware State News file)

Mr. McGlynn, Dover Motorsports Inc. president and CEO, remembers 140,000 fans and a fast field of drivers bonding as one patriotic group for the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400.

The Monster Mile hosted the country’s largest gathering in the short aftermath of 9/11, one roughly double the size of National Football League games also returning on Sept. 23, and far more than Major League Baseball contests beginning just before that.

With lingering uncertainty and uneasiness in a world that changed in one terrible morning, the capacity-crowd confines of Dover International Speedway offered relief.

“The mood outside was somber, but once fans got in the stands the atmosphere turned completely around,” Mr. McGlynn remembered.

“Hearing everyone chanting ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ and all being on the same page was unforgettable and I still get choked up at times talking about it.
“Electrifying doesn’t describe it well. It was powerful.”

Dover Motorsports Vice President Jerry Dunning, who oversaw much of the pre-race preparations, echoed that.

“It certainly pulled at the heartstrings. It was a very special day with the enthusiasm of the competitors, the fans, it’s something you’ll never forget if you were there and a part of it.”

What a performance

With up to 130,000 fans waving MBNA-provided American flags, country music star Tanya Tucker performed the national anthem and “God Bless America” and late addition Lee Greenwood provided a signature rendition of “God Bless the USA.”

Fans couldn’t take coolers inside the track and bags were inspected. “That was the beginning of people getting serious about entry measures for fans into their venues,” Dover Motorsports Vice President Jerry Dunning said. (Delaware State News file)

Fans couldn’t take coolers inside the track and bags were inspected. “That was the beginning of people getting serious about entry measures for fans into their venues,” Dover Motorsports Vice President Jerry Dunning said. (Delaware State News file)

“It made for some great pictures,” Mr. Dunning said. “There are some of them here in the office and you can see a sea of American flags.”

The race ended with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning in stirring fashion, and then circling the oval backward with a gigantic American flag waving from his car as the crowd roared.

After NASCAR postponed the New Hampshire 400 scheduled for the weekend after 9/11, the Dover event happened to be next on the schedule. At first, there were no guarantees that racing would resume in Delaware, though.

“We were in the middle of preparations and weren’t sure if NASCAR was going to hold the race or not,” Mr. McGlynn said.

Two days after 9/11, NASCAR informed Dover Speedway officials that racing in Delaware would run as scheduled.

For locals, the next 12 days involved pulling together a series of three weekend races with security concerns never before considered.

“Obviously to every American it was a shock, including the ones with a major race that we had coming up,” Mr. Dunning said.

After winning the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400., Dale Earnhardt Jr. circled the track backward with an American flag. (Delaware State News file)

After winning the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400., Dale Earnhardt Jr. circled the track backward with an American flag. (Delaware State News file)

For the first time ever, bomb sniffing dogs surveyed the Monster Mile premises, joined by an army of law enforcement personnel including the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Secret Service and state and local police whose ranks had swollen.

When tips of possible suspicious activity in New Castle and Sussex counties arrived, Mr. McGlynn said all were treated with grave importance, however unlikely and eventually unfounded they were.

“Everyone was on hyper-alert for that 10- to 12-day process,” Mr. McGlynn said. “There was a lot of concern about the unknown and what ifs. Everything seemed like a big deal.”

A new routine

Upon arrival, thousands of race fans underwent security that included metal-detecting wands and entry points for the first time. Coolers and backpacks were not allowed in and the usual routine was gone.

Through it all, officials said, the arriving spectators accepted what suddenly now was the new normal.

“People understood the necessity of it,” Mr. Dunning said. “They said ‘We’re glad that when we do get in we can feel safe and secure. There was no upheaval among the spectators but they did want their coolers back.

“That was the beginning of people getting serious about entry measures for fans into their venues.”

Mr. McGlynn praised race fans.

“NASCAR fans are unbelievably resilient and flexible,” he said.

“Shutting out all the coolers and backpacks was a big change for them and they had to endure all the time-consuming extra security measures that were suddenly in place.”

With spectators not allowed to enter with food and water, Speedway officials scrambled to add extra venues inside to provide the necessities. When the water ran out on Saturday, more was trucked in overnight to meet the big day’s thirst.

“We worked very hard to keep up but knew it wasn’t possible,” Mr. Dunning said. “I’m sure some people left with dry mouths at the end.

The races went on, as did the nation.

“Everyone was relieved when it was over,” Mr. Dunning said. “On Monday when we got a chance to breathe, we said ‘Yeah it was a little more hard work, but nobody got hurt.’ ”

While the large workloads taxed the Dover host at the time, NASCAR weekends challenged the mind and body even under normal circumstances.

“When you entertain 140,000 for a race on Sunday and maybe 30,000 or so for races on Friday and Saturday there are so many moving pieces that you’re basically drained by the end of the weekend,” Mr. Dunning said.

“On Monday you’re still riding on adrenalin when you come back in but by Tuesday it hits you and your body tells you it needs to be in bed.”

Mr. McGlynn, a native New Yorker, was shaken by the initial acts of terrorism that felled the Twin Towers. Initially hearing that something bad had happened, he remembered a plane flying into the Empire State building as a youth with far less effect.

“Once I got a look on TV I could see how enormous it really was,” he said. “When the second plane hit I said to the guys ‘Geez, this is our Pearl Harbor.’ “

Upcoming race weekend

The upcoming NASCAR weekend at Dover will pay tribute to National Guard members and others who protect the nation’s freedoms. The schedule includes:
• Citizen Soldier 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race – Oct. 2.

• Drive Sober 200 NASCAR XFINITY Series race – Oct. 1.

• NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race – Sept. 30.

The feature film “Citizen Soldier” showcasing an Oklahoma National Guard unit through real footage while deployed in Afghanistan will serve as a race sponsor.

“The Monster Mile has deep connections to the men and women who selflessly serve in our military and who provide the freedom we all enjoy, particularly with our close proximity to Dover Air Force Base and the Delaware National Guard,” said Mike Tatoian, Dover International Speedway’s president and CEO, in a news release.

“Our partnership with Strong Eagle Media and its film ‘Citizen Soldier’ further strengthens that connection, and serves as another way for the remarkable stories and sacrifices of all of our National Guard and military members to be told.”

For tickets or more information, call (800) 441-RACE or visit DoverSpeedway.com. Information is also available at Facebook.com/DoverInternationalSpeedway, or on Twitter and Instagram at @MonsterMile.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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