(Left to right) 9/11 Memorial President Joe Daniels, Lt. Mickey Kross, retired New York City firefighter and 9/11 first responder, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne and Richmond International Raceway President Doug Fritz visit the site of Ground Zero in New York City on July 29. On Saturday, the 9/11 Memorial begins a countdown to the 10th anniversary of 9/11
This weekend, NASCAR and Richmond International Raceway will face a unique challenge, that of balancing the excitement of setting the field for the final twelve Chasers for the Sprint Cup Championship while also honoring the memory of American lives lost on September 11th, 2001.
“It is delicate,” Doug Fritz, Richmond International Raceway President, said. “We do feel the responsibility of balancing the remembrance of 9/11 and obviously the excitement of the Chase.”
“Ever since the 2010 schedule was released and we saw we were going to run our first Cup race on September 11th, I can tell you that the 9/11 tribute has been a very high priority for our team,” Fritz continued. “Within a week after the schedule was announced, we started talking about how important this would be to do this and do it respectfully.”
“It’s been a high priority for us and I’m extremely pleased to see how it has evolved,” Fritz said. “It’s going to moving for the fans and touching. We’ll always remember September 11th and where we were.”
Fritz prepared for his track’s September 11th remembrance by visiting Ground Zero this summer with Cup drivers Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne. The trio not only visited the hallowed ground of the World Trade Center but also received a tour of the new memorial, set to open next year on the tenth anniversary of the terror attack.
“It’s unbelievable how big the area is,” Kahne said of his Ground Zero experience and tour of the new memorial site. “It’s going to mean a lot to all those families who lost loved ones.”
Fritz, inspired by his World Trade Center memorial visit with Kahne and Hamlin, said that the plans to remember 9/11 at the track during the upcoming Richmond race weekend will reflect how moving his own experience was. One of those special tributes will be a rendition of “Never Forget” by singer Megan McGovern, as well as local fire trucks displaying a giant American flag between their aerial ladders.
“We worked really closely with the local branches of the military as well as the first responders,” Fritz said. “There’s a great mix between the fire, EMS, and the police that you’ll see on Saturday.”
Every fan that comes into the track will receive an American flag to wave during the pre-race ceremonies. The band Night Ranger will not only perform an hour pre-race concert but will also share their rendition of “God Bless America.” The Governor of Virginia and the Air National Guard will lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Fritz also wanted to plan for a special flyover in honor of the 9/11 victims, which will include the 192nd Fighter Wing from Langley Air Force Base flying four F22 Raptors. The honorary starter will be Chief Master Sergeant Christopher Muncy, the Command Chief of the Air National Guard, and the Grand Marshall will be Lt. General Harry Wyatt III.
“It’s going to be a good night,” Fritz said. “We will also have some of the first responders from New York City and the Pentagon here at the pre-race.”
The tie in to the military will also be reflected in the Richmond race’s presenting sponsor, the Air National Guard, a new relationship for the track. Since Virginia has the second highest number of military present in the state, this was a natural connection with the track especially on the nine-year anniversary of 9/11.
The new sponsorship was announced in dramatic fashion — with track President Fritz jumping out of one of the Air Guard planes.
“They talk about bucket lists or things you want to do,” Fritz said, “But this thing never made my list. As it got closer and closer, I can tell you I was scared to death.”
“The only thing I could associate it with was that terrible feeling when you go over that first hill on a roller coaster,” Fritz continued. “Your heart goes one way, your stomach goes another and your brain is telling you this is just not smart.”
But jump he did, putting his full trust in his Air Guard compatriots. His jump was especially daunting due to the fact that he was set to land in the infield of the ¾ mile race track.
“The chance to do something that a track president has never done was great,” Fritz said. “But the bigger thing for me was why we were doing it. You think about the military and every day they are jumping into the middle of hostile gunfire. This gives us the opportunity to say thanks to all the men and women around the world protecting us.”
While NASCAR and Richmond International Raceway are set to remember 9/11 and thank the military for their service, they are preparing to celebrate the setting of the field for championship contention.
“At the end of the evening, we will have twelve Chase competitors,” Fritz said. “And the best part is that you have the top ten drivers who are already locked in who only care about a win.”
“Even guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won at Richmond several times, will do whatever he can do to go for a win,” Fritz continued. “It just feels different in the garage because this is such a critical race for so many of the drivers and the teams.”
“It is a balancing act,” Fritz reiterated. “We’re thrilled to be part of the 9/11 remembrance. But we’re also excited about being that last race before the Chase.”
While ticket sales have been brisk and track president Fritz predicts a good crowd, there are still tickets available to attend the race in person, with information at www.rir.com. ESPN and ABC will also be airing 9/11 tributes as part of their pre-race coverage.