This Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the worst terror attacks in the history of the United States, when terrorists flew airplanes into both of the Twin Towers in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Because of what happened, all the major sports leagues decided to cancel their events in the days immediately following the attacks. NASCAR postponed their race in New Hampshire that weekend, but did run at Dover International Speedway a week and a half later.
I was nine years old in 2001, and still remember that time very well. My family was fortunate enough to not lose anybody in the attacks, but we almost did. My uncle worked in tower 7 at the World Trade Center, which also collapsed that day. We didn't have any contact with him for most of the day, but fortunately he was able to come home that night. Many others were not so lucky. Life stopped. It just came to a complete stand-still. No planes flew. Nobody went to work or school. Events were cancelled all across the country. At nine years old, I was terrified that life might never re-start.
The following weekend, my father and I went to Dover International Speedway, something we'd been doing since I was five years old. We drove off Long Island, through Manhattan, and into New Jersey and then headed south towards Delaware. We were able to see downtown Manhattan, where the Twin Towers once stood. But that morning, we saw smoke from the fires that were still burning after the Towers collapsed. We were headed toward a race track to have a weekend full of fun, but seeing that smoke made me worry if anything would ever be fun again.
There was this profound sense of unity in America in the days immediately after September 11th, something I felt where ever we went. That Sunday, that unity felt like it had its own pulse when all 130,000 people at the Cal Ripken Jr. 400 came together for the first public event since the attacks. The racetrack gave a mini-American Flag to all fans who walked through the gates that morning. Everybody waved their flags during the Star-Spangled Banner before the race. There is usually about a three-minute gap from the time the anthem ends to the command to fire up the engines. That three-minute gap was filled with the sound of 130,000 people chanting "U.S.A" at the top of their lungs.
Almost all cars that weekend had an American Flag or a saying along the lines of "Remember 9/11" on them. Sponsor decals were replaced, but the sponsors didn't have a problem with that. Ken Schrader was sponsored by M&M's at the time, and instead of seeing colorful candy all over his car, his entire car was a rolling American Flag.
I don't remember much of the race, except that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won that day. I remember that he went to pit road and grabbed a large American Flag, rather than the checkered flag when he did his burnout, and when he did that all 130,000 people once again chanted "U.S.A."
NASCAR has long been considered the most patriotic of all sports in America. The fans at Dover showed that. That race at Dover was one of the most enjoyable sporting events I've ever been to. I was only nine, but I still remember the events from that weekend in Dover, and the horrific events in New York and D.C. the week before.
This Sunday is the tenth anniversary. Saturday night in Richmond, Virginia, NASCAR will once again prove why it is considered the most patriotic of all sports.
We can never forget what happened ten years ago, and we shall honor the lives of all 2,996 people who died that day by continuing to live.