Racing Back To The Track

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DOVER, Del. – The NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to a race track after a week off.

But it’s not that simple. Nothing is so simple anymore. The terrorist attacks last Tuesday have changed this nation forever. It’s changed every facet of life.

And that includes sports, which, of course, includes NASCAR racing.

Yet, slowly, as Americans get back to the business of business, so must the sports world. Friday at 1:35 p.m. (ET), Winston Cup drivers officially return to business with qualifying for the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400. Hearts will be heavy, but speeds will be high.

“It may return us to some semblance of normalcy,” Ken Schrader said. ”But then again, who knows what normal is going to be anymore? That is something we’ll have to determine over time. But we are looking forward to going to Dover and getting going again.”

Schrader was one of the few drivers who raced last weekend, participating in two short-track races in Illinois. To drivers like Schrader, racing isn’t just part of life. It is life.

But life, as we’ve learned, isn’t so easy anymore.

“After all that has happened, it will be good to get back to the race track this weekend,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has already dealt with tragedy this season with the death of his father in February. “I know that just being around the track and being with my team was really good for me after my father’s death, so I hope that it has the same positive impact for everyone else this week: the team members, the fans. It does have a healing effect to get back to what we have to do, and I’m sure it will be good for the race fans to have a race to watch on Sunday.”

Perhaps fans will remember what sports is supposed to be: a diversion, not life itself.

“The nation is who will decide how important this and other sporting events are for all of us,” Tony Stewart said. “Part of the reason we’re racing is that we don’t want to disappoint anybody. Those who want to see a race this weekend and live their lives like they expect to – they should. Maybe a weekend off has given everyone some time to heal, and perhaps putting on a good show for the fans is what we need right now.”

“Hopefully, we can ease some of the pain so people aren’t just sitting and thinking about what’s taken place every single minute,” Dale Jarrett said. “Entertainment is what we provide, and, hopefully, we have the fans that are ready for that again.”

Hopefully, too, drivers and teams will be ready to resume an already trying season. Seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500, and the controversy surrounding his death has clouded the year.

Just when it seemed Earnhardt’s death drifted from the front pages and the focus shifted to the championship battle between Jeff Gordon, Ricky Rudd and others, the United States was rocked with last Tuesday’s tragedy.

Last weekend’s New Hampshire 300, like all major sporting events, was postponed. Drivers have universally praised that decision, though a post-Thanksgiving race in New England looms. The country needed time to heal, Kenny Wallace said.

“Let’s get down to the facts: You had two 767 jet airliners full of fuel headed for California kill over 5,000 people in a terrorist act,” Wallace said. “Our lives are changed as we know them. You can’t act like nothing’s wrong and go on as normal. You don’t go on like everything’s fine. You don’t prove to terrorists that you’re not going to get us. . I actually think that everyone was in shock.”

The shock gradually wore off, and many teams returned to racing earlier this week, testing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Tuesday and Wednesday. And Friday, they return to work in full force.

“I can’t say we’re real pleased to go back to work, but in one respect we’re kind of anxious to get back,” Rudd said. “We’re probably like all of the rest of America: we’ve been sitting around our television sets watching the news and watching the events. It definitely wasn’t pretty last week, and New York still isn’t a pretty sight, but life goes on even though we’ve had such a tremendous tragedy.”

The effects of that tragedy have already been felt by many travelers, and NASCAR teams discovered it this week. Most teams flew private jets into the nearby Dover Air Force Base, but with the military on high alert, those planes had to be diverted to an airport 35 miles away. A minor diversion, for sure, but still a diversion.

Also, some Dover-area hotels have been politely asking teams to surrender reservations for the influx of military personnel, though most have honored past bookings. And security will be tighter than ever here, with fans not allowed to bring in coolers or other large bags.

And there will be plenty of reminder’s of the Sept. 11 tragedy.

“We’re going to be right there close to where all this has happened and just to know what everyone up there is going through – it’s going to be tough,” Joe Nemechek. “I’m sure there’ll be some people at the race track who have been directly affected by this, and that’ll be really difficult. But maybe we can help in some way, maybe help some people get back to where they feel like it’ll be OK again.”

And maybe send a message.

“I’d like to send my own message to them,” Stewart said. “I sure don’t feel like crawling in a hole and hiding because of what these people have done. If nothing else, this has only made our country stronger.

“Just going about our business – but at the same time making sure that we’re helping the victims of this whole deal in any way we can while resuming as normal of a life as we can – is in the best interest of this country.”

But what is normal?

“We needed some time off,” Wallace said. And now it’s time to go back racing.”

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