NASCAR drivers recall their memories of 9/11

NASCAR and Richmond International Raceway will race ceremonies on the night before the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Titled "Salute to America," ceremonies prior to the start of Saturday's 400- lap Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond will be highlighted by members of the Wounded Warrior Project saying the Pledge of Allegiance; Danny Rodriguez, the singing New York police officer, performing "God Bless America"; and the U.S. Army Infantry Division Band playing the National Anthem.

Nearly 3,000 died after two hijacked jet airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, a third into the Pentagon and a fourth near Shanksville, PA.

Members of the NASCAR community remember that dreadful day as well as the days that followed. Several drivers have recently shared their memories from 9/11.

"That was a strange day, because it always pops up every year since that is the day of my mom's birthday," said Kevin Harvick, who was a rookie in Sprint Cup as well as a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series that year. "It is one of those days that has a lot of meaning other than her birthday now, everything that happened that particular day. I remember we were in Memphis, Tennessee testing our Nationwide car. I remember the confusion and everybody not knowing what to do, and we just packed everything up and went home.

"For everyone that is an American, everyone will remember where they were on that particular day and just the efforts and things that you are really now seeing the results of everything that happened that particular day and capturing the guys that were responsible for it. It is just amazing how far that we have come and the things that changed on one day."

All of professional sports in the United States had ceased activities for almost a week in wake of the attacks, as the country and the world were in deep mourning. Air travel in the U.S. had also come to a halt in the interim.

NASCAR's premier series had been scheduled to compete on September 16, 2001 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (then called New Hampshire International Speedway), but that race was postponed until November 23, the day after Thanksgiving.

"About Tuesday or Wednesday, I can't remember when [NASCAR officials] called it off, but I started getting pretty stressed out about if we could even make it to New Hampshire if we had to drive, so it was a weird week besides the tragedy and everything going on around it," Matt Kenseth recalled.

The September 23 race at Dover International Speedway was the first one held after 9/11. With nearly 140,000 fans waving American flags and chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A." in the grandstands, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored a hugely popular and emotional win. Earnhardt Jr. sent a patriotic message on behalf of the stock car racing community that day when he held the American flag out the window of his No.8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet during his victory lap around the one-mile Dover track, located roughly 160 miles south of Ground Zero, 100 miles northeast of the Pentagon and 270 miles east of Shanksville.

"We were fortunate enough to win at Dover immediately after 9/11," Earnhardt Jr. remembered. "We were a young team trying to find our own identity, and we were fortunate to pick the win up that day. The guys came over and brought an American flag to the car, and we drove it around the racetrack a little bit. It was a pretty cool moment. Whoever had won the race that day was going to do something similar to that. I was just fortunate to be that guy."

Jeff Gordon remembered the fall 2001 race at Dover as one unlike any other he had experienced during his illustrious racing career.

"What was amazing when we got to Dover was the American spirit, everyone showing support for our country and how proud we are to be Americans, how we're going to stand up, we're going to push back, we're going to show everybody what we are made of," he said. "To go from a sporting standpoint and an entertainment standpoint and go and perform with all those things happening to me was important and it felt great."

Gordon wasn't the only driver who felt that way during that race weekend at Dover.

"The race that I probably remember the most is Dover, just because of the location and the activities and the feeling of that particular day at Dover was something that was just different than normal," Harvick said. "This is a very patriotic garage. We're all proud to be Americans and understand what it means to be an American."

This weekend's race at Richmond will be the final opportunity for many drivers to make the 12-member field for the championship Chase. It will also be NASCAR's patriotic way of honoring the victims of 9/11.