Race drivers collect donations from spectators at Irwindale Speedway… (Irwindale Speedway )
With a heavy heart and enormous emotions, Bob DeFazio brought his team of advisors together in the boardroom of Irwindale Speedway. In the background, with the sound muted but horrifying and unthinkable images still flashing across the screen, the TV set played on.
It was 9 a.m., Sept. 12, 2001.
Almost exactly 24 hours earlier, airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center in New York City and changed the world forever.
DeFazio was then, and still is, the general manager of the suburban racetrack that runs various stock car races on Saturday nights from late March through Thanksgiving. His job was, and still is, a daily menu of decisions. He had made easy ones and hard ones. But never before, anything like this.
In three days — a decade ago — he had a race card scheduled. Indications around him were that sports everywhere were shutting down. The NFL was leaning toward postponing weekend games and did so the next day. Same with Major League Baseball, which stopped playing until Sept. 17. The big sports had more than emotion pushing their decision. No planes were flying. Even if they wanted their teams to play, they couldn't move them.
DeFazio had no such logistical crutch. His drivers were local. So were his fans.
But was racing the right thing to do? Should little Irwindale Speedway turn right when virtually everybody else in sports was turning left? Should they race when the country was paralyzed by shock and fear by the 9/11 attacks and officials were advising against any kind of large gathering?
"My questions were," DeFazio recalls, "should we go dark that weekend out of respect? Or should we run that weekend out of respect?"
From that meeting, which included, among others, director of marketing Pat Patterson, communications director Doug Stokes, and director of pit operations Mike Atkinson, came a heretofore little-known moment of post-9/11 healing.
Atkinson said the drivers wanted to race. Stokes said racing would show them (the terrorists) that they can't take things away from us. Patterson said they could give everybody candles for a memorial moment. DeFazio said all proceeds could go to the Red Cross. Track owner Jim Williams said he would be on board with the group's decision.
DeFazio listened and dropped the green flag.
"Through it all," he says, "I was looking for the right thing to do, and this felt right."
The gates opened Saturday night, Sept. 15, and DeFazio and his staff held their breath.
"Will anybody show?" he says. "What if nobody shows?"
Track capacity is 6,300. DeFazio hoped for 3,000. That night, 6,300 showed up.
"They just kept streaming through the gates," he says. "They caught us off guard."
Tim Huddleston, one of the track's more successful drivers and the owner of High Point Racing in Simi Valley, recalls, "We were absolutely hoping to race. This is our comfort zone. When we are here, we are surrounded by our closest friends. The only time we are competitors is when the green flag drops."
Just before the first race, Patterson climbed into the starter's tower with a microphone and paid proper homage to the people who had died and the first responders who had saved so many and also died in such large numbers. Lined along the wall, facing the stands, were drivers and crew members. When Patterson finished, they worked their way up into the stands and people filled their helmets with money.
"It was surreal," says Lisa Derderian, the Red Cross official on hand that night. "Little kids were emptying their piggy banks. People were donating their meal money."
The races went on.
"I don't remember who won any race," DeFazio says.
When it ended, the crowd stayed in its seats. Patterson's idea had become reality. Each attendee had been given a candle upon entrance and now ushers worked their way through the crowd, lighting candles on the aisle so the flame could be passed down. Across the way, the approximately 100 drivers and crew members who had competed that night left the pits in a slow procession, candles in hand.
"It wasn't ordered or rehearsed," Huddleston says. "It just happened."
Over the public address system came the sounds of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."
DeFazio stood near the start-finish line, looking up at 6,300 people, holding burning candles in a show of sorrow and strength. He saw car owner Bob Bruncati standing nearby. Bruncati had been among those DeFazio had called for advice on whether to run.
"He said, 'This was the right thing to do,'" DeFazio says. "He had a tear in his eye, and that's not like him."
The drivers and crew members had emptied their helmets into giant plastic garbage bags. The bags were dumped on the same boardroom table where the decision to race had been made. It became a giant pile of big checks from the corporate suites, $100 bills, $1 bills and pennies. With Derderian watching, they counted well into the wee hours of the night. The next day, the Red Cross got a check slightly in excess of $50,000.
Stokes had forgotten to take home some pictures he needed, so he returned to his office Sunday morning. He anticipated a mess, candles everywhere. He looked in the parking lot, then in the pits, in trash cans and under the bleachers.
"None, zero, not one," he says. "They must have all kept them. I think that was part of the respect."
Postscript: Saturday night, they will race as usual at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale. It will be mere hours short of the exact 10-year anniversary of 9/11. The event will be remembered with ceremony and respect, but probably less emotion.
Except that Dave Hutchinson will play the bagpipes.
He is a local firefighter.