Tragedy silences NASCAR engines

Sunday, September 16, 2001

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Under normal circumstances, Tony Stewart never takes a weekend off. Whenever NASCAR's not running, the racing junkie is usually scouring the country looking for a dirt track or some other venue where he can compete.

These aren't normal circumstances.

When NASCAR postponed today's running of the New Hampshire 300 because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Stewart didn't look for another race to fill his time.

"Normally, I'll race anywhere, anyplace at anytime," he said. "But nothing's been normal since Tuesday morning. I'm still in shock, to be honest, of what has happened, just like everyone else."

And so Stewart was one of 43 drivers left without a race track to go to this weekend. It was a strange feeling in NASCAR, a traditionally stoic sport that stops for almost nothing.

When Adam Petty was killed in an accident while practicing at New Hampshire International Speedway last year, his crumpled car was towed off the track and racing resumed the next day.

The same thing happened when Kenny Irwin was killed in the same place two months later. A splash of fresh paint was thrown over the wall where his car had hit it and the drivers promptly went back out onto the track.

Healing behind the wheel

Racing is how NASCAR heals, proven earlier this year when the sport barely paused after Dale Earnhardt, its biggest star, died in the season-opening Daytona 500.

His memorial service was held in Charlotte on a Thursday, one day before the entire sport headed down the road to Rockingham, N.C., for another weekend of racing.

So firm in its belief that the show must go on, NASCAR has stopped racing in its first 52 years for only three things: Easter, Mother's Day and Mother Nature.

The sanctioning body never schedules events on the two holidays, so before now, the only time the green flag start was stopped because of something other than rain came in 1998 when the Pepsi 400 was postponed because of forest fires in central Florida.

That changed Thursday when NASCAR president Mike Helton postponed the race in Loudon, N.H., rescheduling it for Nov. 23.

Citing respect for the victims of the attacks and the logistics of getting all the drivers and crews into New Hampshire, Helton gave the drivers their first weekend off since an idle week in June.

A tough call

Kyle Petty, who took a month off from racing after his son was killed last year, knew Helton struggled with the decision.

"If you run, there are those people who think you should have stayed home," Petty said. "If you stay home, you get those people who think you should run. There is no easy decision, but after what happened Tuesday, I don't know there are a whole lot of easy decisions for anybody to make these days."

So like the rest of the country, NASCAR's stars are home this weekend reflecting on this week's tragedy -- albeit without the normal outlet they go to for solace.

Instead, they had the option of attending a private prayer service on Friday conducted by Motor Racing Outreach.

About 200 team members and their families participated in the service at the dirt track across from Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"When you're a little kid, you're taught to learn the national anthem and you're taught to learn what the American flag means," driver Kenny Wallace said. "After all these years, I've always known and always very much respected it, but it's never been put to the test.

"This week it was, and I truly understand it now. It makes racing seem awful small right now."

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