The death of Osama Bin Laden has created, in most, emotions ranging from relief to outright joy. The mere fact that the man who brutally slaughtered so many people during his life - including more than 3,000 Americans in a single day - left this world hiding in a mansion as US Navy SEALs who took him down with a headshot, rather than dying of old age as a hero for extremists, is reason to at least smile.
At the same time, however, we have been forced to take a mental trip back to that awful day nearly a decade ago where our entire world - and life as we knew it - changed forever. We all know where we were the moment we first learned of the attacks and where we were when we first truly grasped the magnitude of the horror of that day. Thankfully we have also been able to revisit the sense of patriotic unity that gripped the United States in the weeks following September 11, with celebrations of our nation and our way of life abound.
That month was an extraordinary one for all Americans, and the nation's sporting community - NASCAR included - was not immune.
By the time dawn broke that Tuesday morning, auto racing had already experienced more than its share of tragedy and grief. February's Daytona 500, of course, had brought the death of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in a final-lap crash that shook NASCAR to its very core. Just a week before Earnhardt's death, the NHRA had suffered an immense loss of it's own with the death of Pro Stock Motorcycle legend Dave Schultz following a battle with cancer.
On March 4, track marshal Graham Beveridge was killed during the Formula One season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne when Jacques Villeneuve's car climbed over the rear of Ralf Schumacher's car and crashed into a fence behind which Beveridge was standing. Then in April, Italian Michele Alboreto - a five-time F1 race winner and champion of the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 2001 12 Hours of Sebring - perished in a Le Mans Prototype testing crash at the Lauzitsring circuit near Klettwitz, Germany, just a month after his Sebring win.
These tragedies cast a dark shadow over what had been an otherwise entertaining, often thrilling, season across all racing disciplines and sanctioning bodies.
The last major auto race held in North America prior to the attacks was the September 8 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Richmond International Raceway - ironic, considering that the Sprint Cup Series raced at Richmond 24 hours before the announcement of Bin Laden's death. Crafty veteran Ricky Rudd outdueled a cocky rookie by the name of Kevin Harvick to win the race and give new life to his fading championship hopes as he pursued Jeff Gordon.
By mid-morning Tuesday, obviously, the championship fight - and everything else having to do with sports and life in general - had taken a back seat as unfathomable horror played out on television screens across America. Bud Selig announced the cancellation of Major League Baseball games, and other leagues shortly announced similar postponements.
On Thursday, September 13, the New Hampshire 300 at the then-New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, NH., was postponed by NASCAR until November 23, the day after Thanksgiving. Now the last race of the 2001 Winston Cup season, it was scheduled on Friday to leave the weekend open in case of snow or other inclement weather. (Ultimately, the race ran as scheduled under sunny skies and 50-degree temperatures.) A Craftsman Truck Series race at the Texas Motor Speedway was postponed from September 15, while the Indy Racing League postponed it's season finale scheduled for September 16 until October 5.
The only major American-based sporting event not to be postponed was the Champ Car German 500 at the aforementioned Lausitzring. Re-named The American Memorial, the race was run as scheduled and the week from Hell continued: 12 laps from the race's conclusion, beloved two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi lost control of his car leaving the pit lane and slid on-track into the path of Patrick Carpentier and his teammate Alex Tagliani. Carpentier narrowly avoided Zanardi's machine, but Tagliani hit it full force, shearing it in half (Warning: VERY graphic material). Zanardi lost both legs in the crash and nearly bled to death as he was tended to on the track.
In the aftermath of the attacks on the nation and the gruesome injuries to one of the most popular figures motorsports, tensions were high as racers and race fans turned their attention to the race weekend at Dover International Speedway. That tension was only ratcheted up by the track's close proximity to Dover Air Force base, due to concerns of a possible attack on military installations.
Despite the fears, a packed house showed up for the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 on September 23. American flags were passed out to each as they entered the race track and were waved prominently in a passionate and patriotic opening ceremony that featured Lee Greenwood singing his trademark song "God Bless the USA" and Tanya Tucker singing "God Bless America" and our National Anthem. After each song, the crowd broke into a chant of "USA! USA! USA!" while waving their flags and banners showing support and solidarity with the victims.
Note: The pre-race ceremonies for the 2001 MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 can be viewed here: Part 1 (Lee Greenwood), Part 2 (Tanya Tucker, Driver Intros), Part 3 (Invocation, National Anthem)
Fans watching the race at home on television were treated to an unprecedented move by NBC, who televised the race. All 43 driver introductions were shown, while Bill Weber of NBC Sports read the charity pledge of each driver, sponsor, and team to the victims of the attacks.
Every car in the field displayed some sort of patriotic symbolism or message. Several sponsors removed their prominent hood decals in favor of large American flags. The Robert Yates Racing Fords of Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd, the Andy Petree Racing Chevrolets of Bobby Hamilton and Joe Nemechek, the Haas-Carter Racing Fords of Jimmy Spencer and Todd Bodine, the Wood Brothers Ford of Elliott Sadler, and the Bill Davis Racing Dodge of Ward Burton went this route. Burton's teammate, Dave Blaney, carried the American Red Cross logo and phone number on his hood.
Tony Stewart's Pontiac was covered in red, white, and blue stars, while Jeff Burton's Ford - which already sported a blue, red, and white paint scheme, had white stars. The Dodge of Stacy Compton and Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet both carried paint schemes with American flag designs along the sides and nose. Waltrip's scheme actually was run in every race from Dover to the season's conclusion.
The most striking message of all was that of Kenny Schrader, the popular veteran who drove the equally popular M&Ms car. Every sponsor decal on his Pontiac was removed and replaced with a complete American flag paint job.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ultimately won the race and carried a large American flag around the track afterwards. His post-race gesture was replicated by most race winners in the remaining races of the 2001 season. Sterling Marlin dominated the UAW-GM Quality 500 on October 7 and waved the flag triumphantly afterwards as news of American military operations in Afghanistan began to spread.
Patriotism has remained a prominent part of NASCAR's culture, something SB Nation Atlanta will focus on as the Memorial Day Weekend running of the Coca-Cola 600 nears, but it was those days and weeks after America's darkest hour that the stock car racing community's pride and passion for its country shone brightest.
For images of the cars used in the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400, visit the following links: CIA Stock Photo, Motorsport.com, Jayski.com Attack on America (includes information on NASCAR's response to the tragedies)