There have been 103 NASCAR Cup Series races contested at Dover International Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway’s sister track.
Since 1969, the Dover events have been contested anywhere from 300 to 500 miles, on asphalt or concrete. For 52 years, the races have been decided by less than a second or more than five laps. Through 10 presidential administrations, the race champions have received small silver cups, larger awards and 65-pound Monster Trophies.
While the cars, technology, safety measures and rules have all shifted in that span, one Dover race remains a constant as a fan favorite and stands above the others as a thrilling scene, a historic occasion and a memorable experience.
The 64th NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover was the “MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400,” with the baseball legend serving as the race’s grand marshal during his final season in the big leagues. Having the future Hall of Famer wave the green flag alone would have put the race in a special place among Dover events. But that’s just a minor feature of this particular race.
The race’s date was Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001 – 12 days after the tragedies of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa. After several days of mourning and cancellations, society in general, and the sports world, gradually began returning to normal in the next week.
The same weekend as the “MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400,” college football and the NFL returned to the sports landscape as well with large crowds, but the 135,000 fans that packed the Monster Mile that Sunday afternoon was the largest gathering of Americans in one place since the attacks. Nobody who was there for NASCAR’s return to the track is likely to ever forget it.
As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, Dover International Speedway, through taped interviews and contemporary memories, recalls its unique contribution to America’s recovery.
NASCAR was heading to New Hampshire Motor Speedway on the weekend of Sept. 14-16, 2001. Jeff Gordon was well on his way to winning his fourth NASCAR Cup Series title, Jimmie Johnson was two weeks away from making his Cup Series debut and the sport was heading toward the finish line on a tumultuous season that had begun with the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
The travel plans to New England were halted as Americans huddled around television sets all across the country on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, to see smoke emerging from the towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
DENIS MCGLYNN (Dover Motorsports, Inc. President and CEO)
“I was in my office when it occurred. Our first thought is it was an accident. The visuals were awful. We all agreed this was our generation’s Pearl Harbor. Making phone calls was impossible. You just didn’t know when it was all going to end.”
As details emerged as the day went on, McGlynn’s connections to the New York attacks became starker. One was immediate – his brother worked in the South Tower but made his way safely away from the initial attack and the subsequent destruction following the tower’s collapse.
Another link was McGlynn’s roots. McGlynn was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in lower Manhattan, where many attack victims were transported.
As it became apparent that normal American life would be at a standstill for several days, McGlynn’s thinking quickly shifted to the upcoming NASCAR weekend at Dover International Speedway, scheduled for Sept. 21-23.
DALE EARNHARDT JR. (NASCAR Hall of Famer, 26 career Cup Series wins)
“Nobody knew how to act or what was the right thing to do or how we were supposed to respond, and the whole country was really sort of in shock and couldn’t believe that this had happened.
“The attitude amongst NASCAR and what you were hearing outside of NASCAR was that we need to be doing what we’re doing or what we’re supposed to be doing. This isn’t going to stop what we do or how we live or how we act.”
“I had called [then NASCAR president Mike Helton] to see what the thinking was. He called back later that week and said they were going to cancel New Hampshire and we were up. That really started the ball rolling.”
From there the Dover staff went to work, continuing preparations for the regular crush of approximately 200,000 people for a typical race weekend, but also coordinating various law enforcement personnel facing unprecedented challenges.
“We had virtually every law enforcement agency here – federal, state, local. We were all meeting each other for the first time and putting together some cohesive plan and preparing for 200,000 people for the weekend. Tensions were very high. Nobody could predict where the next threat would come from, whether it was a vehicle or a bomb strapped to someone.
“Apprehension is probably as good a word as you can find. No one knew what to expect. We had just seen some pretty horrifying things on TV and the last thing we wanted was something like that to happen here. Not a lot of sleep was had at night. Everybody was so busy during that week that I don’t think there was much time to consider emotions.”
JIM HOSFELT (Assistant Vice President, Public Safety & Track Operations, Dover International Speedway; former City of Dover (Del.) Police Chief)
“The coordination between city, state and federal public safety agencies was at a level that I had never experienced. At Dover PD we prepared by staging specialty equipment in approved locations in and around the track. We conducted several exercises and toured the facility to try and learn all the small nuances that only a Speedway employee would have known to help better prepare us in the event that we had catastrophic event.”
Some on-the-fly adjustments had to take place with pre-race planning involving security measures. For instance, for the first time in track history, no coolers were allowed in the grandstands for this weekend. For another, there were many more security checkpoints to maneuver through before fans reached their seats.
“If we had 500 trash cans around the Speedway and the campgrounds, every one of them was getting looked at half a dozen times per day.
None of the threats we were hearing were big in retrospect but at the moment they were huge.”
MIKE HELTON (Vice Chairman, NASCAR)
“Everybody got through the heartbreaking impact of Tuesday, Sept. 11. The decision not to go to New Hampshire was made. It took us two or three days after that Tuesday to have a level of confidence that we can do this. That level of confidence came from the industry itself inside our garages and race teams. It came from the federal government helping and saying we can believe you can do that and here’s what we can do. And Denis McGlynn and his staff put all the parts and pieces together that made the weekend so very special. A lot of those protocols – particularly the relationship with the federal government and the resources they have – we still use those today 20 years later.”
MICHAEL LEWIS (Manager of Communications, Dover International Speedway)
“This was the first NASCAR race I ever attended, even though I grew up only about 20 miles away from the track. I was three months out of college and was working for the Delaware State News in Dover and was assigned to write a feature piece on the atmosphere around the track. I didn’t know anything about extra or different security measures because I had nothing to compare it to. I was just concentrating on beating the traffic, getting settled in the media center and chatting with fans.”
“If I felt anything I was anxious – never nervous – just anxious to get to work and start the day. The day flew by me. I had always enjoyed working the events at the Speedway, but on this day it was special and something I was proud to be a part of.”
One masterstroke of pre-race planning that Dover and race sponsor MBNA collaborated on was the distribution of American flags at the gates for all customers. The crowd shots of thousands of cheering and chanting fans waving U.S. flags led to some beautiful and powerful images across the NBC national broadcast and memorable moments for those in attendance.
“There [were] a ton of American flags everywhere. Everywhere you turned there was a reminder or evidence of what the country had gone through, was going through, what everybody’s attitude was about it, and it sort of built up over the weekend. And it was emotional. It was heavy.”
“As we grew closer to the start of the race it was common for the Motorcycle Unit to park together outside Gate 1 [near the Start-Finish line] for a picture and then walk into grandstands and watch the start of the race. When I stood at the start finish line and looked at 135,000 fans some dressed patriotically and most waiving the American flag it is something that I will never forget.”
With the help of NASCAR officials, the track lined up country music superstar Tanya Tucker to sing the national anthem and Lee Greenwood to sing his patriotic hit “God Bless the USA” during pre-race ceremonies.
JEFF GORDON (NASCAR Hall of Famer, Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, 93 career NASCAR Cup Series wins)
“We’ve united in a way that has just inspired everybody. I think that’s what we’re here to do this weekend. Not only to do our jobs and get back to some type of normalcy but to show those out there that we’re not going to allow anybody to take away our freedom.”
“The crowd was electrifying. They did a big wave. There were many ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ chants. Just reciting that now gives me goose bumps. Tanya Tucker sang ‘God Bless America’ and the national anthem and Lee Greenwood sang ‘God Bless the USA.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“I remember leaving the media center and wanting to be outside when the anthem and other songs were sung. After Lee Greenwood finished I was hugged by fan in a T-shirt – he was a complete stranger – and he was crying at the time. He hugged me with a beer in one hand and I joked when I got back to the media center that I had tears on one shoulder and Bud Light on the other so that made me a certified NASCAR journalist. Looking back, it was a pretty poignant moment.”
DALE JARRETT (NASCAR Hall of Famer, 1999 NASCAR Cup Series champion, 32 career NASCAR Cup Series wins)
“I see this nation coming together right here at a NASCAR Cup Series race and that’s just fantastic.”
Jarrett had earned the pole position for the race and led 43 of America’s best drivers to the green flag, waved by Cal Ripken Jr., baseball’s “Iron Man” who was playing in his final season after a lengthy career with the Baltimore Orioles.
CAL RIPKEN JR. (Baseball Hall of Famer and Baltimore Orioles legend)
“Great memories of this day. Started that morning in Dover, Delaware, at the Monster Mile to be the grand marshal for the ‘Cal Ripken 400,’ which was a very cool honor. Bobby Labonte was the driver of the Cal car, repainted in orange and black with my retirement tour logo.”
The star-studded field included 10 future NASCAR Hall of Famers (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Ron Hornaday, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace) and another Hall of Famer (Benny Parsons) was one of the NBC broadcasters in the TV booth. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick were two of the five rookies in the lineup.
RICHARD PETTY (NASCAR Hall of Famer, Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, 200 career Cup Series wins)
“[Sports in general] got people’s minds off the tragedy of September 11. For a few hours anyway, they were able to be entertained by baseball, football, racing, whatever it may be.”
KURT BUSCH (2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion, 33 career Cup Series wins)
“To go back and race at Dover – it was magical. You could feel everyone’s pride. Everyone yelled from the top of their lungs on what it meant to be an American. It was like we were all there ready to go to war together. It was an intense situation at Dover as a racer, a fan and an American.”
“Once fans got inside and gripped by the electrifying atmosphere, everybody was just happy to be there and relieved that we were going to be doing something fun for a change.”
“The atmosphere around the track was exciting and patriotic – there were no political divisions like we have now. On that weekend in Dover we were all Americans and proud of it.”
“The theme for my story ended up being on how everyone was united at that time. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming among all the fans. One person I interviewed recalled a traffic incident that might have led to a fight at another time was resolved with a handshake and a hug on this weekend. There were definitely positive vibes around the whole track.”
“When you talk about Dover in September 2001, I always think first about the energy level that our fans brought back to us that day to give us a really good feeling about being NASCAR and very proud of the NASCAR fan and their spirit. The paint schemes, the tributes in the garage. All NASCAR events are special but that one was the most special one.”
The crowd was treated to a feel-good winner as well, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a race-high 193 laps (including the final 39) and earned his only career Dover NASCAR Cup Series victory by more than 1.5 seconds over runner-up Jerry Nadeau. Ricky Rudd finished third, followed by Gordon, Stewart and Harvick.
After racing under the checkered flag, Earnhardt’s crew gave him a giant American flag to hold out his window, and he proceeded to circle the track in a backward victory lap with Old Glory trailing in the breeze beside his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.
The resulting image of Earnhardt circling the track with the American flag was later used by Dover as the basis for a farewell trophy presented to Earnhardt before his final Dover race in 2017.
“[I’m] glad I could be the guy to win the race so I could carry the American flag around there. It made me feel good.
“[There’s] no way to describe our 2001 win at the Monster Mile other than emotional. It’s a day and experience I will never forget.”
“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I actually left before the end of the race. In those days if you weren’t one of the first cars out of the parking lots you weren’t moving for at least an hour and I had other assignments to handle. I went back to my home office and filed the story but I’ve always regretted not sticking around and seeing Junior with the American flag in person.”
“It was kind of a perfect ending to what was a highly stressful week and weekend.”
Ripken provided his own perfect ending that evening back in Baltimore as he clubbed his 431st and final homer of his career in a nationally-televised Sunday night game.
“After [the green flag waved] we raced back to Baltimore to be with the team for the Sunday night game against the New York Yankees. Wasn’t feeling 100 percent, but went deep off ‘El Duque’ Orlando Hernandez for my final home run in front of a packed house at Camden Yards.”
Twenty years removed from the events surrounding the “MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400” on Sept. 23, 2001, the memories are still strong for those that attended, worked at and participated in the race – not only because of the tragedy that preceded it but the feelings of unity and spirit that persisted during and after the event.
“Since then I’ve covered or worked at more than two dozen other NASCAR Cup Series weekends but it’s safe to say I could attend races for another 30 or 40 years and not see another scene like that afternoon in Dover. It was definitely an unforgettable experience.”
“You talk about Sept. 11, which was 20 years ago, and COVID was last year and we’re still trying to figure it out. What you learn is, the NASCAR industry and the NASCAR fans are going to figure it out. We’re going to get through it and figure out how to get through it, come out the others side and continue to go to the race track and have good times.”
“It certainly enhanced my conviction that NASCAR fans are the most patriotic group as a whole that this country has. They all have support for the military and support for the flag in common. You can see them with the flags in the grandstand to this day. … It enhanced my belief that there are no better patriots than NASCAR fans.”
“There’s only these rare times when – no matter where you came from, who you were, what your job was, what your status was – you all were on the same page, and you all had the same feeling and attitude.
“Going back to the race track, being at Dover, going through that process, seeing the reaction of the fans – all that was sort of the beginning of things being put back together.”