The New Year approaches. In NASCAR and America, that's normally a time for refreshing renewal, contemplation and optimism, another chance to get it right. Though things are not normal, we can hope and pray fervently that the year will be more for the better than worse.
As we write this missive, Jeff Gordon appears on the verge of winning his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup championship, barring a late collapse, and sentimental favorite Ricky Rudd is having the best year of his 26-year career. U.S. and British military forces are delivering payback to Afghanistan for Sept. 11. Lord only knows what has happened since.
Barring all-out war, economic crisis or uncommon fears, NASCAR is likely to hold its own in 2002. But the challenging, near imperative goal is to eliminate fatal accidents. America's difficult mission is to protect our homeland and eventually eradicate terrorism.
Let us be clear that there is no attempt here to put events in NASCAR and America on the same level. NASCAR is sport and entertainment, a small slice of American life. There is absolutely no comparison with a serious threat to our freedom, well-being and way of life. But a parallel can be drawn.
It was inconceivable that five NASCAR drivers would die within a span of 17 months of similar injuries in similar crashes, underscored by Dale Earnhardt, a racing icon, on Feb. 18. Blaise Alexander, 25, died in an ARCA race at Charlotte, Oct. 4, but he was a NASCAR regular in 2000. Racing is dangerous and drivers accept the risks, but losing five drivers so quickly is unacceptable. It couldn't happen. It did. Earnhardt was too good and ornery to die in a race car. He did.
It was unimaginable that fanatics could hijack four commercial airliners and crash three of them into symbols of freedom, prosperity and power in one fateful day, killing at least 5,000 innocent Americans of diverse backgrounds in unspeakable carnage in New York and Washington, D.C. This couldn't happen on our soil. It did.
Neither NASCAR nor America was prepared. NASCAR had the best safety record in auto racing, never had so many drivers died on racetracks in such a short time. The perception was that NASCAR was dazed and slow to react until Earnhardt died. But now the expertise, knowledge and technology are available-if used-to stop the killing. The process is agonizingly slow, too slow, some contend.
America had relaxed its guard against terrorism. Through a lack of human intelligence, lax airport security and immigration procedures, we provided evildoers with all the weapons they needed to commit dastardly and devastating acts against our homeland
To be sure, a sleeping giant was awakened. America has united around its leaders and rallied around the flag perhaps as never before, certainly not since World War II. NASCAR drivers, teams, owners, sponsors and manufacturers are unified toward improving safety.
There are always issues within NASCAR. Racers don't always like each other, but they love America. The same is true of the American people. Don't tread on our great nation. Freedom has a price that we've always been willing to pay. Tolerating inconveniences, hassles, intrusions and perhaps the loss of a few liberties is a small part of the price. And sometimes we must fight.
Emotion to the extremes-cheers and tears-has been a defining quality in NASCAR all year and in America since Sept. 11. NASCAR and the nation are awash in spirit-lifting, confidence-restoring patriotism. That's wonderful to experience.
NASCAR and America, reminiscent of Elvis and Princess Diana, cried over Dale Earnhardt. We didn't know whether to cry or cheer when Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Daytona in July and won in a sea of emotion the Pepsi 400, the first race where his father died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. There was a similarly bittersweet sensation when rookie Kevin Harvick won in Earnhardt's car at Atlanta.