News & Media

Inside NASCAR: Silent on Sunday: Helton, others remember 9/11

September 11, 2011, Mark Aumann,

NASCAR balanced emotions of grief, loss with those of defiance, determination

Ten years ago, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks changed forever the world as we know it. From the ongoing wars on terrorism to the increased security every time we fly, the events in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania that day still echo as reminders of how different and complex everyday life seems to have become.

Faced with a tragedy on an almost immeasurable scale, NASCAR officials found themselves with an almost unprecedented situation: how to balance the emotions of grief and loss with those of defiance and determination.

The eventual decision was to postpone the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway until the end of the 2001 season. But how NASCAR officials came to that conclusion requires a look back through the eyes and minds of those involved.

A firefighter at Ground Zero takes a moment for himself after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on Sept.11, 2001. Like so many Americans, NASCAR president Mike Helton and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage watched the day's events unfold on television and soon realized that a tragedy on an almost immeasurable scale had just taken place.

Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001

It was a typical Tuesday morning for NASCAR president Mike Helton, who was sitting in his Daytona Beach office when the first reports of an airplane striking the World Trade Center in New York were broadcast.

"I keep three monitors in my office where I kind of watch news, sports and weather," Helton said. "I was at my desk, watching it unfold. I think my immediate reaction was like everybody else's: 'Oh, my gosh.'

"Your first thought was that it was just an aviation accident. And then over the course of the next several minutes, you realized it was much more than that."

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage also had the TV on at his home in Fort Worth.

Remembering 9/11

Drivers, owners, officials and fans unite to share their memories of 9/11 and to honor those who have served our country by pledging to perform good deeds.

"Robbie Knievel was going to do a jump before the Indycar race and he was on a local TV station doing a live interview," Gossage said. "And it got interrupted with the news, first from New York and then elsewhere around the country. I just remember sitting down at the end of my bed and watching it."

It didn't take long for Gossage to begin to absorb the immensity of what was happening in New York.

"First, [the report] was a private plane that crashed into one of the towers," Gossage said. "If your mind works like mine does, I was thinking, 'That's not what happened.' Then the next one.

"So I realized something really stunning and unique was going on in our country. I didn't know what it meant but I knew it was really bad news. So I jumped in my car and headed to the speedway."

On the way, Gossage's mind raced, but not about the IRL and Truck Series race weekend.

"Like anybody, all my thoughts were about my kids in college and things like that," Gossage said. "Were they OK? Where is my wife? Is she OK? That kind of thing."

In Daytona, just like many other parts of the nation, NASCAR employees began huddling around the TV, watching the reports with a growing sense of uneasiness.

"We kind of collected to watch the unfolding of everything," Helton said. "It became more and more of a topic that transferred over to 'Oh, my gosh. What's this mean going forward?' Then as we started thinking about in general what it meant and understanding that what we just saw was a life-changing moment."

Eventually, NASCAR's management team -- led by Bill France -- began to switch from generalization to specifics. The Cup Series was scheduled to be in Loudon, N.H., in three days. And a decision needed to be made on what to do.

In Loudon, NHMS track president Bob Bahre was also getting word about what was happening a few hundred miles to the south.

"I don't remember exactly the spot I was in, but naturally everybody was in shock, no matter who you were," Bahre said. "Then a little later, I got a call from Bill France."

Helton was in on the conference call, along with the rest of International Speedway Corporation's board: Jim France, Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy.

"As the conversation went on, we got on the phone with Bob Bahre and the folks at New Hampshire," Helton said. "And obviously, there was a lot of just talk among the industry, not necessarily about what we would do going forward as much as the newsworthiness and life-changing moment that we had all witnessed, which was paramount above the event, quite frankly."

"I don't remember exactly the spot I was in, but naturally everybody was in shock, no matter who you were. Then a little later, I got a call from Bill France."


In Fort Worth, Gossage was also burning up the phone lines. He spent the day in constant communication with then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, who was running the IRL's operations.

"I remember talking with Tony George probably 10 times that day on the phone," Gossage said. "There was just so much uncertainty. But we both agreed that what we were going to do was to try to run that Indycar race. So we put out a statement that we were going to go ahead and run."

Gossage said the idea was to create some sense of normalcy on a day when things were anything but.

"In our best of intentions, we just thought the right thing to do was to keep things as normal as we could for the people who were planning to come anyway, partly out of a sense of duty to the country," Gossage said. "You've heard that over and over since. You can't let the terrorists win. I remember Tony and I talking about that, and agreeing that the best thing was try to be normal as we could."

The idea of either canceling or postponement was unprecedented. In major league history, the entire schedule had been postponed only three previous occasions: President Warren G. Harding's death in 1923; after the Normandy invasion in 1944; and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death a year later.

In fact, the National Football League did not postpone its slate of games after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, a decision that long-time commissioner Pete Rozelle regretted for the rest of his tenure.

In Daytona, the Frances and Helton began to discuss what steps to take next. And the first move was to assess the safety of having haulers on the road in time for technical inspection and the first practice of the weekend.

"There wasn't a matter-of-fact decision that we could race but [the decision was] let's go ahead and unplug Friday," Helton said. "It was a function of 'Let's take this step by step.' We haven't even had the chance to digest everything that happened.

"But we know it's Tuesday and fundamentally, operationally, our industry would be on the road or in the air by Wednesday evening to get ready for the weekend. And so we made the decision Tuesday to go ahead and postpone Friday's activities initially. That decision wasn't instead of the balance of the weekend. It was just a first step."

Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 and Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001

Following the attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration immediately grounded all non-essential civilian aircraft in the United States, leaving thousands of passengers and flight crews stranded. Rental cars were in short supply. The entire transportation web was tangled. And Gossage knew the decision whether to race or not was quickly being made, no matter how he felt about it.

"Shortly, we all realized we didn't have any choice," Gossage said. "The airplanes were grounded, you couldn't get a rental car. You truly couldn't get from point A to point B in this country for a brief period of time."

Moment of silence

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, fans attending Saturday's Cup Series race at Richmond, television and radio broadcasters and the track announcer will all go quiet from laps 9 through 11 at the .75-mile oval.

The three-lap moment of silence, in which all fans attending the race will also wave American flags, is the culmination of many 9/11 tributes and patriotic activities being planned by NASCAR.

With the Truck Series scheduled to head west, Gossage had also been in contact with Helton.

"At some point, I called Mike because I knew they had their hands full in New Hampshire, trying to sort out what they were going to do there," Gossage said. "We did compare notes on what they were thinking and what we were thinking, since we had the two big motorsports events of the weekend.

"I just remember Mike telling me, 'Whatever you do with the Indycars, we'll do with the Trucks.' That was agreeable and easy."

Ever the promoter, Gossage was already planning what to do for the fans planning to attend that weekend.

"I knew that the country would be in a patriotic state of mind, which was the best thing of all," Gossage said. "If there was a silver lining, that was it. At least briefly, we all were together.

"So I had our staff get on the phone and find 50,000 American flags so whenever we had the race, we'd have flags to hand out. And we just did get our order in because we weren't the only ones thinking that. If we had waited another hour, we wouldn't have found any little American flags anywhere in the country."

In Daytona Beach, the NASCAR brain trust was continuing to monitor the situation. And the consensus was that sometimes there are things more important than racing.

"[At] some point on Wednesday, we decided that -- you know what -- we'll reschedule New Hampshire," Helton said.

"But it wasn't necessarily, at the end of the day, the logistics as much as we all were disturbed and saddened and impacted by what happened. So as the stewards of the sport -- and we all in the office building knew what our responsibility was and knew what our options were -- we knew this was a major episode for all of us individually and collectively as a country."

The conversation kept coming back to the idea of obligation and responsibility, and how best to serve both fans and the industry.

"We digested the idea of the truck drivers taking the cars to the race track, the team members getting to the race track -- however they could get there -- the TV crews coming in and setting up and running the cables and setting up the cameras," Helton said.

"And [we were] thinking about the fact that many of them could have been affected directly by what happened Tuesday morning. And if they weren't affected directly by family or friends, they were certainly affected as countrymen. And so logistically, you could have pulled it off. We could have put everybody on the interstate in trucks and cars."

In the end, the final decision was Bill France's. Soon the phone rang in Bob Bahre's office.

"Bill called me himself," Bahre said. "We both talked about what happened. He said, 'I think we've got to cancel it.' And I said, 'Bill, whatever you say. You call the shots.' And he talked about other things that were being canceled, I can remember baseball and a lot of other things.

"Bill and I were pretty good friends for a long time. He was nervous, not just about the race, but about the whole situation. I didn't ask him to cancel or anything like that. Our people were here. Just in the courtesy and the decency of the people who were killed, it was the right thing to do. It was Bill's call. It was not my call. But we went together on it."

Paying tribute

NASCAR Nation supports the 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance with stories, photos and videos honoring heroes and victims on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Bahre considered France a long-time friend and knew the decision wasn't easy.

"Bill was a helluva guy," Bahre said. "He wasn't demanding about it. He said he had a problem and I agreed with him 100 percent and we went right ahead and did it, all in that one phone call. No argument, no nothing. That's the way it was going to be.

"It was a long call, about 15-20 minutes. We were all in shock, not just over the cancelation but over all the stuff that was happening."

Bahre had to personally deliver the news to the few thousand people who were already on the track grounds.

"We had a lot of campers that had already checked in," Bahre said. "My son Gary and I drove through slowly and told everybody. They knew what had happened. So we told them we had to cancel it.

"And we didn't get one bitch about the cancelation. Not one person raised hell about it. They all understood."

Jeff Burton was -- and still is -- disappointed with the decision. But he understands the reasons why it was made.

"My opinion of it then was, 'Let's go and race and show the world that they can't stop us from doing what we want to do,' " Burton said. "I still believe that. But from a pure practicality standpoint, us being there would have been a major issue. Even getting there would have been a major issue.

"So logistically, if we were keeping any emergency crews or any security people that we had to have at our track from going [to New York], then that would have been the wrong thing to do. But I wanted to go race. I was mad enough about it that I wanted to show the world that 'look, you're not going to stop us from doing what we want to do.' "

In Texas, Gossage eventually came to the same conclusion as NASCAR.

"There was only one decision to make," Gossage said. "Even as I resisted it, as the day wore on, it was obvious there was only one thing to do. And that was to postpone.

"So later we had to issue a different statement, that we were going to delay until about a month later. Even that, you have to coordinate with Indycar, NASCAR, television networks, etcetera, to find the right day and time and all that stuff."

When the NFL announced its plans to postpone, nearly every other major sports league -- including NASCAR and the IRL -- fell in line. And both New Hampshire and Texas were silent on Sunday.

For NASCAR, it was only the second non-weather related postponement in the sport's history.

In 2002, race fans gathered for the Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond International Raceway and marked the one-year anniversary of the terror attacks using red, white and blue placards to show their support for the country.


It was 55 degrees and glorious sunshine in Loudon on the day after Thanksgiving when the Cup Series finally ran the 2001 New Hampshire 300.

"We were nervous, because we wanted to get it in that year because it was the last race of the season," Bahre said. "We could have lost it if we had a lot of snow. Then it would have been a mess because we would have had to give everybody their money back. That would have been the fair thing to do. You couldn't take people's money and not give them a show."

Was it the right call to postpone?

"I think it was, in respect to all the people who died and everything that happened," Bahre said. "We could have gone ahead and run the thing, no question, but we did the right thing. And it was a hell of a crowd that day, much more than we expected. It took a lot of prayers, but it got done."

"It was a sad, tragic, society-altering-for-all-time kind of day. Who knew? And who could prepare you for that?" "


Ten years later, Gossage remains "stubborn" in his insistence that he could have run the weekend following 9/11. But he realizes the decision to postpone was the correct one.

"On this scale and the impact, not just nationwide but worldwide, we were insignificant and it really didn't matter," Gossage said. "It was about much larger things than we even know of today. It's one of those deals I remember thinking about it later and just realizing how unimportant people running in circles real fast really is.

"It's a good diversion from your every day, black-and-white life, but it just didn't seem terribly important at that time when we didn't understand fully the impact of what was going on. It was a sad, tragic, society-altering-for-all-time kind of day. Who knew? And who could prepare you for that?"

Helton doesn't look back and second-guess the decision to postpone.

"I think it was the right decision," he said. "I think we handled it correctly."

And on Sept. 11, 2011, Helton will pause and remember.

"I don't think we should overlook or forget the fact that that morning, we all were watching a moment in time take place that we all recognize as life-changing," Helton said. "We watched thousands of innocent people basically murdered. We watched first responders do what they do and many paid the sacrifice for reacting according to the way they're trained to react.

"That was paramount. That's beyond anything else that we could think of or be responsible for thinking of. That was, I think, the biggest memory that we should never forget."