Dover Speedway showcased a renewed American spirit after 9/11

Fans and officials paid respects to those who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attacks before the 2001 Dover NASCAR race. (Delaware State News file photo)

Fans and officials paid respects to those who lost their lives in the Sept. 11 attacks before the 2001 Dover NASCAR race. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — Fifteen years ago, a recovering nation focused on the First State.

After postponing the New England 300 just five days after the 9/11 attacks, Dover’s Monster Mile was next up as NASCAR resumed its Winston Cup schedule on Sept. 23, 2001.

With 140,000 fans and a national television audience watching, Dover International Speedway showcased renewed American spirit through stirring performances from some megastars.

The MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 drew the country’s largest mass gathering since being shaken by the deadly attacks just 12 days earlier.

Tanya Tucker at the 2001 Dover race (Delaware State News file photo)

Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem and “God Bless America” at the 2001 Dover race (Delaware State News file photo)

Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem and “God Bless America” before the green flag waved, while good friend Lee Greenwood performed “God Bless the USA.”

It was quite a show, including a moment of silence, along with a flyover by a C-5 cargo plane from nearby Dover Air Force Base and thousands of emotional spectators waving flags and chanting “USA! USA!”

Some angst arose as grand marshal Cal Ripken Jr. was missing just moments before he was to address the crowd. The Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer had bounced around the track with MBNA officials since arriving and was spotted down on pit row.

“We had a near crisis with the ‘Where’s Cal?’ moment,” Dover Downs Gaming and Entertainment president and CEO Denis McGlynn recalled.

“We sent somebody to get him and he jogged up to the stage and began talking.”

Moments after winning the race nearly four hours later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took an impromptu backward trip around the speedway with a huge United States flag waving from his No. 8 car as the crowd roared. Several other drivers had decorated their stock cars with red, white and blue colors.

The celebrities remember

Recently, Dover’s celebrity performers recounted their time at the forefront of the country’s early healing process with the Delaware State News.

Reminded of her renditions, Ms. Tucker remembered being “locked in” to both songs in a setting – recovery from terrorism – she hopes is never repeated.

“Wow, it was very powerful to me,” Ms. Tucker said during a phone interview from Nashville, Tenn.

“It was the great American sport that was involved in an All-American place and every American was [feeling a pretty strong sense of patriotism] at the time.”

Opening with his version of “God Bless the USA”, Mr. Greenwood vividly recalled “not being sure if I could get through it.”

A Jumbotron replayed images of 9/11’s worst moments, followed by a loud rally cry of “America fights back” just before Mr. Greenwood took center stage with microphone in hand.
“I had to fight back my own emotions as an American,” he said in a phone interview.

“As I was singing I was picturing people falling out of the [Twin] Towers. …

“I will never forget that moment on the track when I felt like I was representing the face of America …”

No stranger to performing before large audiences, Mr. Ripken – playing his last professional season – said via email that he sensed the enormity of a crowd approximately four times bigger than at a typical Orioles game.

“I think the fact that this came on the heels of 9/11 made it that much louder,” Mr. Ripken said. “The fans wanted to demonstrate their strength and their patriotism and it was evident.”

Cal’s ‘coolest’ moment

Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. waves to the crowd at the 2001 Dover race named in his honor. (Delaware State News file photo)

Baltimore Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. waves to the crowd at the 2001 Dover race named in his honor. (Delaware State News file photo)

Of all the tributes he received while on his farewell tour after 21 seasons and 2,632 consecutive games played at one point, Mr. Ripken described the time at Dover as probably his “coolest” moment,

“The unity of the fans and the feeling of patriotism was remarkable,” he said. “It seemed like everyone there had an American flag and they were chanting ‘USA, USA’.

“It was incredibly powerful and moving.”

A decade and a half later, Mr. Ripken often recalls Dover’s speedway when the 9/11 anniversary arrives. He was home as the terrorist attacks unfolded and “Like everyone else [my reaction] was complete shock and concern.”

Baseball’s “Iron Man” was working with race sponsor MBNA credit card company in 2001, hence the connection to Dover.

“That experience gave me an appreciation for NASCAR that I didn’t have prior,” he said. “The people were very welcoming and the fans were very passionate about the sport and connected to their favorite drivers.”

Meeting with Mr. Ripken before the race, Mr. Greenwood remembered conversing about the value of being role models and a patriotic duty to “convey the message that we’re alive and we’re still going to keep our head up” as a country.

Asked about the experience of standing before such a gigantic crowd, one dwarfing any NFL or Major League Baseball setting, Ms. Tucker was taken aback when told of the attendance figure that afternoon.

“Wow, I don’t remember that,” Ms. Tucker said. “That sounds pretty dang big. I can’t ever recall a crowd like that.

“Yep, I don’t think I’ve ever performed in front of an audience that big.”

Told of the NBC television audience, the country music star responded with, “That’s great, that’s even better.

“It’s great to have that exposure and sing for the honor of all the great things there are about this country.”

‘Bringing everyone together’

The performances were in tune with the country’s collective emotions at the time, Mr. McGlynn remembered.

“They did an amazing job of bringing everyone together to this moment of silence,” he said.

“After that, everyone was listening to every word. If you haven’t heard a chorus of about 70,000 or so singing together it’s quite a sound.

“It was one of those rare moments where everyone comes together and everyone is on the same page at the same time.

“It was amplified by the release of emotions people had built up in the prior 12 days. They let it all out at that moment.

“I’m sure there were a lot of tears shed in the stands. I’ll always remember just how it felt and I haven’t felt it since.”

Arriving in Delaware from Nashville with his wife on a private jet in the early hours of Sunday, Mr. Greenwood remembered the country’s attitude as “tense “ at the time. A moratorium on flights had recently been lifted and any sense of new normalcy was still developing.

“There was fear first [when the terrorists struck], then anger and then a feeling of resolve to bring back strength to the country,” he said.

After several hours in Dover, Mr. Ripken hustled back to Camden Yards via helicopter and hit a two-run homer against the Yankees that night.

At that point, the baseball legend was accustomed to playing after celebrations for him, the Baltimore to Dover road trip included.

“That season was great,” Mr. Ripken said. “Full of celebrations and emotions. I think I just got used to it being that and adjusted.

“Prior to 9/11 I was having a really good second half of the season with a bunch or home runs.”

Though Ms. Tucker didn’t experience much of surrounding Delaware during her stay she said, ““What I’ve seen of it is beautiful. It’s something I hope to see more of.”

Ms. Tucker said her interest in racing driving grew thanks to connecting with one of its lead drivers.

“I liked NASCAR but never really got involved until meeting Geoff Bodine and being able to go back into areas where no one else can go,” Ms. Tucker said.

Delivering the national anthem and God Bless America – Ms. Tucker joked that she thought for a long time they were one long song – is still a privilege 15 years later.

“It feels great to honor some of those who have given their lives so we could all experienced our freedoms,” Ms. Tucker said of a recent appearance before United States Marines.

An unplanned moment

While Mr. Earnhardt wasn’t available to speak to local media, the Hendrick Sports No. 88 team provided quotes from a recent interview session.

NASCAR postponed the first scheduled race – the New England 300 in New Hampshire – in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The Dover race happened to be next up.

“I think it was the complete opposite of the week before where we sort of shut down. In Dover, it was like ‘We need to get back to racing, people need to be here and see something and have something to smile about.’ “ Mr. Earnhardt said.

“It was good to be back at work and it felt right.”

The memorable victory lap with Old Glory wasn’t scripted or planned until the short moments after the checkered flag.

“We had a great car and we’re not sitting there thinking, ‘Man, if we win, let’s have this American flag ready.,’ “ said Mr. Earnhardt, who donated roughly $80,000 to a 9/11 victims relief fund afterward.

“We weren’t that confident or arrogant. But, we won the race and I was out there doing burnouts and one of the guys on the crew said, ‘We’ve got this flag back here, hold on and we’ll bring it to you,’ and he stuck it in the window.

“So I’m hanging onto this thing and driving around the track trying not to go too fast and have it ripped out of my hand. …”

The victory placed Mr. Earnhardt in position to share an incredible moment with his country, but he figures any winning driver would have done the same.

“I always say that no matter who won that race, that’s what would have happened,” he said.

“Whoever won that race would’ve done something to show the patriotism that all of the sport felt at that particular time, so we just got to be the lucky guys that got to represent the sport in that very brief moment.”

For every moment that Ms. Tucker worries that her country’s greatness has waned, comes a reminder of potentially better things to come.

“Then I see some of these young men and women on a cattle farm, with the Marines, or on the rodeo grounds and witness some of the great things they are doing and say to myself ‘Wow, that gives me hope for our future.’ “ Ms. Tucker said.

His first race

Mr. Ripken believes Dover might have been the first time he attended a NASCAR race.

“The power from the cars was really striking,” he said. “I started the race in the crow’s nest above the track and they encouraged me to stay out there for a lap.

“The cars some so fast and I actually felt pieces of rubber pelting me as they went by. To be honest it was a little unnerving but it was a wonderful experience.”

Seeing the Monster Mile track before him for the first time, Mr. Ripken said he was surprised by the steep banks and turns.

“There and Daytona that was surprising to me … that and the sheer size of the racetracks was remarkable,” he said.

The Dover Speedway staff was quite hospitable, Mr. Ripken said.

“Everyone could not have been nicer,” he said. “Very welcoming, excited to have me and my family there. It was a special day.”

After being introduced to NASCAR at Dover, Mr. Ripken said he became more connected with the sport. He’s driven the pace car at the Daytona 500 since then and spent time with Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. Kevin Harvick — who he describes as a “great person” — has become a regular contact through the years and is a Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation board member.

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