On Saturday, Sept. 1oth, I spent my entire day at Richmond International Raceway. I literally went from tailgate to trackside, something that I’d never done before, something that I’d never even thought to attempt. It’s always been one or the other, fan or journalist, but never both. I generally make the trek from Washington DC to Richmond on my own and do my job from the confines of the media center and infield. I have not seen a race from the stands or mingled in the crowd in over three years.
[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”228″][/media-credit]This weekend was different though, as we all know, this race fell on the same weekend of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. For many this was more than just your average race day, this was a time to also reflect and pay tribute to those we lost in those terrible attacks a decade ago. So, when several of my coworkers expressed interest in going to the race, I changed my normal routine to give them the best race day experience they could hope for. For many of them this would be their first experience with NASCAR. I wanted them to be hooked, to feel what I felt at my first race, I wanted them to want to come back for more.
We arrived at the track at 10am and staked our ground by parking six vehicles to form a virtual square. In the center we set up tents, tarps, tables, chairs and grills. We strategically placed the coolers, cranked up the CD player and even hooked up a flat-screen TV complete with a DirecTv dish in the back of an SUV to catch some College football before heading into the track. The perfect setup for the ultimate tailgating party. There were 16 of us in total. We varied in age, gender and race to form a perfect little melting pot. You see, we are more than just mere coworkers, we are also great friends. Anyone who has had the opportunity to attend a race knows that you may come with the friends you know, but you leave a race with even more. A NASCAR race is the perfect setting to hang out with thousands of the closest friends you never knew you had.
We ate until we felt that it was impossible to take another bite and then we ate some more. We played cornhole and ladder-ball. Some relived their college days by playing competitive Flip Cup and Beer Pong. Some watched Virginia Tech beat East Carolina from the bumper of a Chevy Trailblazer, while others laid in the sun, just soaking it all in. We mingled and met new people. We shared our stories with them and they with us. After several hours of hanging out next to our crazy brood, a gentleman with his own large group of friends finally mustered up the courage to ask just how in the world a group like us came to be at a NASCAR race together. “I don’t mean this to sound rude or disrespectful by any means, but I’ve been trying to figure out what your connection is with each other other,” he said. “I’m looking at you and you’re from all walks of life, it is an interesting combination of people you’ve got here.” I hadn’t given it any thought until he said something, but by looking at us we did look a bit like a United Colors of Benneton ad.
I told him that we all worked together. He questioned what it was that we could possibly do that would accommodate all of the varying personality types. I explained that we were all healthcare providers that worked in the Emergency Department in the suburbs of the Washington DC metropolitan area. It’s funny when you say that to someone because you can actually see when the light comes on, that moment that it suddenly makes sense. The moment that they think “Oh man, they work in the ER, that explains the craziness!” It’s true, one has to be a little crazy to do the jobs that we do. We’re made up of Nurses, Paramedics EMTs, Registration Clerks and medical school students. In any other world, in any other profession who knows if we would have made a friendship connection, but in our world it just makes sense.
We know what it’s like to see the worst of the worst. We all had our own 9/11 stories to tell, what we went through and experienced not only from a personal point of view but from a medical one as well. Many of us waited on that day in 2001 to help victims that would never arrive. We share a unique perspective of that day. We were at the track this weekend not only to watch what would turn out to be one of the best races of the year but to commemorate an anniversary of a day that everything changed and will never be forgotten. A day that for many of us was the worst day of our lives.
I listened to countless stories on Saturday of where people were, what they were doing and how they reacted. Sometimes you can’t remember what you ate for breakfast but everybody vividly remembers exactly where they were ten years ago today. On Friday I listened to drivers being asked the same question, each of them had a story to tell, each of them a little different than the next. It is easy to forget at times that NASCAR drivers are “people too.” Their larger than life personas that play out on our television screens weekly affect our way of thinking, but under their flashy firesuits and fast cars there is someone that we can genuinely relate to. Our so-called racecar driving heroes have heroes too.
On the last race of the regular season, on a night that sets the Chase and makes for huge headlines in the sporting world, drivers respectively took a backseat to the memory of the 343 New York firefighters who lost their lives, not in the name of heroics, but simply because they were “doing their jobs,” to the 184 souls killed at the Pentagon, to the 33 passengers and seven crew members on Flight 93 who bravely gave their own lives in an attempt to stop the hijackers from crashing into another building, to all 2977 innocent lives lost and to to the families left behind and to the servicemen who fight everyday for our freedom and protection.
NASCAR not only said “I will,” they united and delivered. Then asked the question, “Will you?”
As I made my way from the parking lot to the infield before the start of the race and was handed a tiny American Flag, I knew the answer to that question. I along with over 100,000 others that night at the track said a resounding “Yes!” The pre-race ceremony was like none I’d ever witnessed before. It was emotional and gracious. Crowds cheered when former Mayor Mayor Giuliani appeared on the video scoring tower screens to offer his appreciation, tears were shed as New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez sang “God Bless America” and respect was given to wounded warriors, USMC Corporal Todd Nicely and US Army Specialist Brendan Marrocco led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. Flags waved in unison in the stands as fans and broadcasters paused for a moment of silence between laps nine and eleven. It was patriotism at it’s finest.
I left the track at 1am, some 15 hours after I arrived. Exhaustion was beginning to set in as I made my way to my car. Something on the ground caught my eye, a cutout of a yellow star mixed in with celebratory confetti that littered the infield. I instinctively picked it up and was holding it in my hand when it occurred to me that it was now officially Sept. 11th. I reflected for a moment on the events of the day, the race had been one heck of a wild ride, arguably one of the best of the season, but it was more than that. Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR and the fans got it right on a day, 10 years ago that was filled with such wrong.
NASCAR will never forget and neither shall we.