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Williams: NASCAR Drivers Remember 9/11

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 11 2011

Kyle Busch had one of several cars which were decorated in patriotic pain jobs at Richmond over the weekend. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

RICHMOND, Va. – A decade ago on Sunday the terrorist attack known today simply as 9/11 broke America’s heart while unifying a nation and ripping away its innocence.

During that horrifying morning, time stood still for everyone and everything, including NASCAR. The New Hampshire race was postponed until Thanksgiving weekend, private aircraft was grounded and various members of the NASCAR community were stranded far from home.

Jason Leffler, Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnny Benson, Brett Bodine, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek were testing at Kansas Speedway. Rusty Wallace was stranded in Los Angeles and team owner Rick Hendrick in Detroit.

Team owner Richard Childress was out of the country on a hunting trip. Jack Roush was stranded in Reno, Nev., while Matt Kenseth was in Wisconsin. Jimmy Spencer was in Houston when air travel stopped. Joe Gibbs Racing’s head engine builder Mark Cronquist was in England.

Numerous NASCAR community members attempted desperately to contact family or friends they knew who might be in harm’s way. Some were spared due simply to a late train or a change in their normal routine. Others were not so fortunate.

Penske Racing’s parts department head Pat Hawley had a sister who worked on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center tower that was hit by American Airlines Flight 11. She was missing.

Then Penske Racing South mechanic Bryan Dilly had a cousin who was missing.

Harry McMullen, then general manager at Roush Racing and a New York City native, had five family members who worked at the World Trade Center. Three days after the terrorist attack a first cousin who worked on the 102nd floor was still missing.

It was a day that touched most everyone in NASCAR and at Richmond International Raceway this weekend that dark time in America’s history was commemorated through special paint schemes on race cars and the competitors memories.

Jeff Gordon, who went on to win his fourth NASCAR Cup championship in 2001, said he lived in Florida at the time.

“I just remember turning on the TV that morning and seeing one of the twin towers up in smoke and how they were saying that a plane had crashed into it, trying to understand how that could have happened,” said Gordon, who had a marshal on his private plane when he flew into Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C., earlier this week. “Like many of you, to watch that second plane come in there and at that moment your thought process goes into overdrive of, ‘Oh my God! What is going on there?’ and then the speculation.

“I think this country has gone through a lot and goes through a lot every 9/11. I think it’s important for us to reflect on those that were lost, pay them tribute, but also honor our military for what they have to go through and our police officers and firemen as well; what they have to go through to keep us protected and put their lives on the line.”

In 2001, Elliott Sadler was driving the U.S. Air Force-sponsored Wood Brothers Ford. He was at Eddie Wood’s Stuart, Va., house sleeping when the attacks occurred. Wood called his driver, told him to get up and turn on the television. Sadler spent the rest of the day at the race shop watching the horror unfold on TV.

Nationwide Series driver Josh Wise had just started college and was working at an engine shop in California. He was driving on a freeway when he heard the news, but he didn’t understand the scope of what had happened.

“As things unfolded, you realized it was pretty catastrophic,” Wise said.

When the attacks began shortly after 8 a.m. that Tuesday in 2001 members of the NASCAR community, just like people across the United States, had already begun their daily routine. Ryan Newman was in the shower listening to the radio, several drivers were testing, others were working on their cars and, of course, it was business as usual in the race shops. Kurt Busch was at a South Carolina short track testing.

“As the crew was changing the brakes on the car, I went into the hauler to grab a bite to eat for breakfast and turned on the TV,” Busch recalled. “I thought I was watching a what if this could happen tomorrow or a possible documentary on what is this and how can it happen. It was just a surreal moment of what was happening that morning to see us attacked in that fashion makes you feel very vulnerable. Quite a few things have changed since that date.”

Newman, who’s sponsored by the U.S. Army, visited the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery on Thursday before traveling to RIR.

“We were talking about different things and how it kind of baffled everybody,” Newman said. “It caught us with our guard down when it happened.”

Gordon described 9/11 as a “frightening experience.”

“One I will never forget,” Gordon continued. “I don’t think anybody ever will.”

– Deb Williams can reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 11 2011
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