On the night of Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001, Denis McGlynn sat in his car, put the key into the ignition, and for the first time in nearly two weeks allowed himself to breathe.
The Dover International Speedway was empty, having been packed to the rafters with more than 140,000 people just a few hours before. Now the rumbling of race cars and the chants of "U-S-A!" were gone, replaced by the slaps of rope against empty flagpoles, the occasional call of a seagull, and the rumbling of aircraft from nearby Dover Air Force Base.
"I was so relieved," recalls McGlynn, the longtime president and CEO of the racetrack. "But I was also so proud. For the first time in what felt like forever, I felt a little bit normal again. Like, OK, we can do this."
For every American, there was some personal post-9/11 return to reality. That instant when they were forced to snap out of a trance, to break away from days of staring at the television news channels. The moment when they finally had to stand up, walk out the door and step back into their lives.
For the NASCAR community, that moment was an entire day. The MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 was an exhausting, exhilarating 400-mile return to racing, the first Cup series race run after 12 days of mourning. That return took place at Dover for no reason other than it was the next race on the schedule. Looking back, it feels like so much more than a mere coincidence, from the prerace ceremony to the racetrack's largest neighbor to the driver who won the race.
The Dover bookends
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, McGlynn sat in his car, frantically trying to find information on the radio about the news that was literally happening all around him. Manhattan, where the Twin Towers were burning, was only 160 miles to the north. So close that every weekend New Yorkers drove past his racetrack to vacation on Delaware beaches. The Pentagon, also burning, was exactly 100 miles to the west, and Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 had just gone down, was five hours straight up Interstate 70.
"Like everyone, I was devastated," he remembers. "I was angry. I was confused, overwhelmed. And almost immediately my mind turned to the air base."
Dover Air Force Base is a massive facility that houses nearly 4,000, mostly tied to the 436th and 512th Airlift Wings, designated Eagle and Liberty. Together, the air base and speedway serve as Dover's bookends, one on the southern edge of town and the other on the northern edge.
Their relationship has always been symbiotic. During NASCAR race weekends, the racetrack makes sure plenty of drivers make a stop to see the base. In return, the base allows the sport's massive private air force to use its equally massive runways. On any given race weekend, the base supplies more than 1,000 Air Force members for volunteer work at the track, doing everything from parking cars to selling concessions and bringing the proceeds back to support base organizations.
In fact, McGlynn's last job before moving over to the track in 1972 was as a first lieutenant in the base's fabrication branch. His boss at the speedway was Lt. Colonel John Riddle, son-in-law of Dover AFB's wing commander. Riddle had taken over after the death of USAF Gen. Robert Forman, the track's original general manager. Forman had also left the Air Force to run the racetrack.
Since opening its doors in 1969, Dover International Speedway has had only three presidents. All three moved into the front office directly from Dover AFB.
"It's impossible to imagine life without Dover Air Force Base," McGlynn says. "And I know they feel the same way about us. And on that day, when the skies of America had been shut down, the skies over Dover were full of aircraft and on 24/7 high alert."
On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001, Dr. Doug Arendt sat in his car, stuck in traffic as he crept east out of the Washington, D.C., area toward Dover, Del. The day before, the U.S. Navy captain had just reported to his job at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology when the 9/11 attacks happened.
Now, the next day, he was on his way to Dover AFB. Sometime around 6 a.m. he drove past the darkened 1-mile speedway. As he pulled up to the gate of Dover Tri Service Port Mortuary, he was greeted with rifles and demands for identification. That same morning the sound of helicopters arriving along that same route brought a sickening feeling to those working on the base. They were bringing in the bodies from the Pentagon.
In the coming months, Arendt and his coworkers would up-fit the Department of Defense's largest mortuary. Two decades of peace time had caused the facility to become antiquated. Now it would be upgraded while on the job, its first assignment being to identify the remains of 192 dead from the Pentagon attack, including the hijackers. Soon the system they worked to install would begin processing the remains of those killed in the war that had no doubt just started.
Ten years later, Dover AFB's Port Mortuary is still receiving fallen soldiers and their families on a near-daily basis, a self-described gateway back home. As of Sept. 11, 2011, the remains of 6,889 fallen had passed through Dover.
On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, NASCAR president Mike Helton sat in his car and began dialing up the number of Denis McGlynn. Over the previous 48 hours, Helton hadn't had time to properly digest the terrorist attacks. He'd been working, reacting. The NASCAR offices in Daytona Beach had been sent into a scramble, making sure to account for everyone in a sport that spends more time in the air than any other.
There had been a group of teams testing at the Kansas Speedway on the morning of the 11th, but they had found rental cars and were driving home. A few others had been grounded en route to sponsor appearances. Other than that, everyone was OK.
"Then we had to figure out what we were going to do as a sport," Helton remembers now. "The next scheduled race was in Loudon, New Hampshire. We were supposed to be on the track that Friday and we knew we had to make a decision."
Helton and his mentor, Bill France Jr., talked to race teams, drivers and New Hampshire Motor Speedway owner Bob Bahre. They talked to sponsors and government officials. They even opened a line of communication with the other sports leagues, particularly the NFL. Ultimately, NASCAR decided to postpone the Loudon race to Friday, Nov. 23.
"We kind of braced ourselves for some complaining," says Helton. "We knew that was Thanksgiving weekend and we knew that weather might come into play. But no one said a word, certainly not when the announcement was made. Everyone understood this was all much bigger than any race."
Now Helton was making one more call. His message to McGlynn was simple:
Heightened sense of vulnerability
On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 20, 2001, McGlynn sat behind the wheel, pointing out every nook, cranny and chain-link fence of the Dover International Speedway's 840-acre complex. It had always been part of his job to give tours of the property. But all this week his passengers weren't race fans or potential sponsors. They were members of the FBI, ATF, Secret Service and Delaware State Police.
Major League Baseball had started its first post-9/11 games two days before. College football was returning that night, and the NFL's full slate of Sunday games would kick off at almost the exact same time as Dover's Winston Cup race, now just three days away.
"What everyone began to realize was that our Cup race wasn't just going to be just another sporting event," explains McGlynn. "We were sold out at 140,000 tickets. It wasn't going to be just the biggest post-9/11 sporting event. It was going to be the biggest gathering of people yet."
Soldiers, police officers and agents led bomb-sniffing dogs through every trash can and portable toilet. Then they did it again. McGlynn and his staff sat through countless security briefings. They were walked through the brand-new stadium security procedures. Coolers and backpacks were out. The prerace flyover and NBC's TV helicopters were grounded. Race teams were urged to drive, not fly, to Delaware. If they had to fly, they couldn't land at Dover AFB, so McGlynn was in touch with alternate landing sites throughout the region. Pit crews were told to be prepared to give up their hotel rooms at any second to help make room for the influx of Air Force personnel. And everyone, fans as well as NASCAR and track staff, were told to contact someone -- anyone -- the moment they saw anything that seemed suspicious.
Says McGlynn: "It became this hypersensitive intelligence atmosphere. Reports were coming in all the time. Some weren't worth looking into, but in that environment, it became hard to determine what sounded outrageous."
There was a report of a group of men speaking a foreign language trying to rent a crop duster up in Sussex County. There was talk of a large group of turban-wearing men staying in a motel to the north, in New Castle County. Now it reads like unreasonable paranoia. At the time, it was anything but.
"No one knew what to expect," says Helton. "But once race weekend arrived, we were as prepared as we possibly could be. With the heightened sense of vulnerability it felt like a real leap of faith. But what we were doing was leaping back into our normal lives."
The Flag Car
On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 21, 2001, Ken Schrader sat behind the wheel of his Pontiac Grand Prix race car. As he rolled off to qualify for the 519th race of his NASCAR Cup Series career, he heard a noise not normally associated with a Friday qualifying run.
"The cheers were just crazy," he remembers. "It was like that everywhere we went all weekend in that car. I've driven so many cars and had some of the most recognizable sponsors in racing history. But the one they remember most is the one we ran at Dover that weekend."
As NASCAR teams had unloaded their cars Friday morning, every single machine was adorned with some sort of 9/11 tribute. American flags covered hoods, rear deck lids and quarter panels throughout the garage. And the teams had come to Dover bearing checks, donations collected from fans, sponsors and employees to be donated to 9/11-related causes.
But only Schrader's car was completely wrapped in the flag. There were no sponsor logos to be found, only a large white "36" atop a background of red, white and blue.
On the morning of 9/11, the offices of M&M Mars in Hackettstown, N.J., were closed early so that employees could be with their families. As he drove home, east toward New York, William Clements, the man responsible for the M&M's NASCAR program, realized that he was driving through a cloud of smoke that had blown in from lower Manhattan.
"In an instant, we all knew that we wanted to do something special," Clements said recently from Richmond, where M&M's recreated the now-iconic paint scheme for Kyle Busch. "At first it was much like what you saw other teams do. But then our longtime artist, Geoffrey Thomas, sent us the flag design. That was it."
Every paint scheme on every race car must be run through a tiresome gauntlet of marketers, ad execs and sales people. Then it must be submitted to NASCAR for approval. The process typically takes three to six months. The flag scheme went from drawing board to racetrack in five days.
Recalls Helton: "In the middle of those difficult days, when everyone was in such a fog, the first rendition we saw of that race car put the first smiles on our faces that any of us had had in a long time."
On the morning of Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001, Cal Ripken Jr. sat in the backseat of a car as he was whisked into the Dover International Speedway infield on race morning. This was his final season in the big leagues, a year packed with gifts, standing ovations and open emotions as part of his MLB farewell tour with the area's beloved Baltimore Orioles. It was Major League Baseball that had worked with race sponsor MBNA to put his name on the race and bring him in as grand marshal, though it took some schedule finagling to make it happen.
Still a couple of hours away from the green flag that he was scheduled to wave, Ripken noticed fans lined up at every gate, being patted down and waved over with metal-detecting wands and having their belongings searched. "Now it is such a routine part of going to a game," the Hall of Famer said last month when asked about the day at Dover. "But seeing it that day it was just so unusual."
The lines moved slowly -- the track was in dire need of its 1,000-plus volunteers from Dover AFB -- but the crowd moved along without major complaints. Some griped about not being able to bring in their own coolers or backpacks, but one item they were allowed to bring was the American flag. Thousands did. And those who didn't have one of their own were given one at the door, more than 130,000 in all.
"Was I concerned it might get ugly?" asks McGlynn. "Of course I was. But it never did. It felt nervous, not angry. But the turning point came once the fans got into their seats. Once they were settled, they just kind of took over. They pushed the day from this mood of cautious tension to this most amazing atmosphere of NASCAR-fueled patriotism that we've seen, before or since."
No one knew what to expect. But once race weekend arrived, we were as prepared as we possibly could be. With the heightened sense of vulnerability it felt like a real leap of faith. But what we were doing was leaping back into our normal lives.
”-- Mike Helton
The drivers' meeting began with the pledge of allegiance and ended with Ripken wishing the field well. Driver introductions were the usual popularity gauge of cheers and boos, with an extra bit of support thrown in for Schrader in honor of his American flag ride and for pole-sitter Dale Jarrett, who took the stage in an FDNY ball cap.
Everyone knew that Tanya Tucker was slated to sing the national anthem. At the last minute it was decided she would also sing "God Bless America." But it was a late add to the prerace lineup that rocked the speedway with emotion.
"I had known Lee Greenwood for a long time," says Helton. "When that song first came out I was president at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and we had him down to sing it. It was one of the very first times that he sang that song in public. You knew it was a special song then. After September 11th, I called Lee and asked if he would come up and be a late addition to the prerace."
The song he refers to is, of course, "God Bless The USA," and Helton certainly hadn't been the first person to call. In the two weeks after 9/11, Greenwood's 18-year-old anthem had soared to No. 1 on Amazon.com's sales charts and seen a more than 1,300 percent increase in national radio airplay versus the week prior to the attacks. He had been called on by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to perform at a memorial service at Yankee Stadium and had already done a half-dozen baseball and football appearances. But none of that had prepared him for the impromptu sing-along and chants of "U-S-A!" that greeted him at Dover International Speedway.
"You think about all the times I have performed that song," the artist says when reached during his summer tour. "Every type of sporting event you can think of. So many other NASCAR races. But that day, looking out over a sea of flags, everyone singing with me, the raw emotion. I almost couldn't get through it."
Ripken echoes the same sentiments: "It takes a lot for one day or one moment to stand out from that year, especially as numb as we all were at the time. But I will never forget being in the flag stand over the track. As the cars came around I nearly forgot to wave the green flag because I got so caught up in the 'U-S-A' chant that was going on behind me."
Feeling normal again
On the afternoon of Sunday, Sep. 23, 2001, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat in his car, accepting the congratulations of his peers as he slowed his Budweiser Chevy to a celebratory double-digit speed. As he came back around to the frontstretch line where he had just earned his fourth career Winston Cup win, he crackled over the radio.
"Hey, where's that big American flag at?"
One week earlier, Earnhardt had watched Juan Pablo Montoya earn his first career Formula One victory in the Italian Grand Prix, a race that many felt should have been postponed after 9/11. He watched Montoya, in what should have been the celebration of a lifetime, instead choose to keep Victory Lane subdued. As Montoya recalls, "They handed me the champagne and I just set it down. Going crazy at that moment was not the right thing to do."
Earnhardt agreed. And instead of doing a burnout, he stopped his race car on the frontstretch, where Old Glory was run out to him. He promptly mounted it in his window, then cranked his Monte Carlo around into a reverse victory lap. As the flag rippled by the grandstands, fans descended down from their seats and pressed against the fence, waving their flags right back.
Greenwood was long gone, off to the next performance. So was Ripken, off to play the Yankees. The only people left were 140,000 genuine NASCAR people, celebrating a genuine NASCAR moment.
"I don't remember hardly a thing about that race," says Earnhardt, forgetting that he led 193 of the 400 laps. "I remember that amazing prerace show and then I remember the celebration after we won. It wasn't about me at that point. It was about celebrating America. And it was about feeling normal again. I remember thinking, OK, we're back at the track now. We're all happy again, even if it was just for a few hours. Maybe now it's OK to smile again. To feel normal again."
It was the third time in 2001 that the 26-year-old had been asked to carry the emotional burden of the sport. The first was seven months earlier, after his father's death in the Daytona 500. The second had come in July, when NASCAR returned to the site of that death. Now, as he had in July, Dale Jr. answered with a victory. And the image of his car flying his nation's colors still endures.
The legacy of 9/11 and 9/23
Ten years later, as the 9/11 anniversary remembrances wind down, the memories of that weekend at Dover show no sign of fading.
Earnhardt says fans still bring photos of his Dover celebration to nearly every autograph session he attends. Schrader says the same about the die-cast versions of his American flag car, proud to scribble his name on the collectible because he knows that the proceeds from its sale in 2001 went to the Red Cross, and that the proceeds from Kyle Busch's 2011 car are going to the USO.
Helton still speaks with a tone of pride when asked about that first race back. So does every driver in the field that day, as well as Ripken, Greenwood and every person who was in attendance.
But no one looks back on Sept. 23 quite like the staff at Dover International Speedway, especially Denis McGlynn. "It was the most difficult and yet most satisfying experience of my career," he said. "There was a feeling that day that I wish we could bottle up. Sadness and fear, but then excitement and pride, and ultimately relief that we got through the day OK."
Then he pauses and sighs.
"But then I think about my friends down the road at Dover Air Force Base. What started on 9/11 has never ended for them. There's never been any relief for them. We can't forget that."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.