A little girl, a legendary racer, and a slug of copper make for a great racing story.
NASCAR is full of big stories, big power, big personalities, and big events. But this story started about as small as it could, with a little girl and her lucky penny. Wessa Miller was the little girl, and she just loved racing and one driver in particular: Dale Earnhardt. She also suffered from spina bifida.
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Well, back in 1998, through the efforts of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, she got the chance to go meet Earnhardt before the start of the Daytona 500. Since this was her favorite racer, she brought two gifts: a hunting video and something small that would turn into something more—a lucky penny that became synonymous with that race and one that can be seen featured in the picture above.
With all of Earnhardt’s successes racing for Richard Childress Racing (RCR), he was never able to win at Daytona. In 1990, he came close. He was leading, and on the last lap he hit some metal on the track that shredded his right front tire and any chance of winning.
It was eight years later that Wessa handed him her lucky penny right before the race. As RCR’s Jerry Hailey recalled, they were frantically trying to glue the lucky penny to the dash using some orange goop called monkey snot, but the penny was better at sticking to Earnhardt’s thumb than the dash. Eventually they got the penny on there even though Earnhardt’s hands were covered in glue. Dale went on to win the 1998 Daytona 500 for the first, and only, time ever.
When the car was steered into the RCR museum, the penny was still glued to the dash, and it’s there today if you look hard enough. Earnhardt obviously thought the penny helped break his Daytona losing streak since he contacted the Miller family after the win and asked them to meet later in the year at Bristol, where he gave the family a blue Astro van so that traveling with Wessa for medical appointments would be easier.
A reporter, David Poole, later tracked down the “penny girl” in 2008 and found out she was a still a huge racing fan, still loved Earnhardt, and cried when he died in 2001 at the same Daytona track where she got to meet him. The family made the trek to Charlotte for Earnhardt’s funeral, but the story didn’t end there.
Poole became good friends of the family, and when he won an award from the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008 for a story detailing Wessa’s life, he gave the award to Wessa. He also started a charity called Pennies for Wessa. Poole later passed away, but his charity raised around $10,000 for the family, enough to for them to buy Wessa a new van, one with a built-in wheelchair lift. If you visit the RCR museum, you can see a picture sitting near the back tire of Earnhardt and Wessa’s meeting.
When reporter Brendan Marks followed up in 2018, he found that the Miller family had stayed in the tiny Phyllis, Kentucky, town they’ve always been in. In the decades since Daytona a lot had changed: The family bought a country store and renamed it The Lucky Penny. Later the name was changed to Wessa’s: Home of the Lucky Penny. Wessa, a girl who wasn’t supposed to live past age five, graduated from high school in 2011. The store serves up a Wessa/Earnhardt-inspired menu, and people still stop by to remember the day in 1998 when a little girl gave a great racer a special penny that changed everything.
This chunk of asphalt at the RCR museum was first laid at Daytona International Speedway around 1978. In the summer of 2010, it was dug up to make way for new surface. It’s seen a lot of history, both joyous and sad, but even though many people in the story have passed on, the tale of a little girl and her lucky penny will endure.
The post How a Penny Helped Dale Earnhardt Win the 1998 Daytona 500 appeared first on Automobile Magazine.