Pilot's Son Meets Jeff Gordon

KANSAS CITY, KS. - - How do you begin a letter to a widow you've never met? thought Rob Quillen as he sat at his keyboard. How do you tell the wife of one of the pilots who perished in the terrorist hijackings that only a day earlier you and he had become fast friends, bonded by family stories, a love for NASCAR and a crazy devotion to Jeff Gordon?

And how can we get the pilot's son to Kansas City for next Sunday's race? Quillen turned to his wife, Sue Anne, and asked whether she would want to hear from a stranger who happened to be the last person to enjoy a long conversation with her husband. Absolutely, she said.

Dear Dahl family:
I must start this letter by saying how sorry I am about your loss. Like all of America, my heart goes out to you. I know you do not know me, nor do I know you.

The business trip on September 10 did not start well for Quillen, an account executive for Automatic Data Processing in Lincoln, Nebraska. He was bumped from his New York-bound flight and bused to Omaha to catch another. This journey would take him first to Denver and then to Newark, New Jersey.

Quillen, wearing a Jeff Gordon shirt and counting down the days to his trip to the race at Kansas Speedway on September 30, shuffled onto his United flight in Denver. He settled into his seat for hours of pecking on the laptop.

Then the flight attendant came by and offered open rows to the passengers that were seated next to Quillen. Great, Quillen thought, his own row. But the aisle seat was quickly taken by a gentleman who, before buckling his seat belt, asked Quillen about his shirt.

"Do you work for Jeff Gordon?" the passenger asked.
"No, just a big fan," Quillen said.
"Yeah, my son and I are, too."

And that's how the conversation got started. Back and forth it went. Jeff Gordon. Monte Carlo. NASCAR. Kansas Speedway. All the essential Gordon topics were covered before the plane reached cruising altitude. The flight attendant handed a beer to Quillen's new friend, who did not reach for his wallet.

"How did you pull that off?" Quillen asked. "You're either very important, or you're dating her."

"Neither," Jason Dahl said. "I'm a pilot. I've got the Newark-to-San Francisco morning flight tomorrow. I'm just catching a ride out there."

The next day Dahl, captain aboard United Flight 93, would perish with 44 others in a rural Pennsylvania field, the last of four hijacked airplanes to crash on a terror-filled morning.

Profiles of victims have become a daily news staple, and stories of heroism about the passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 are beginning to emerge. The plane was headed for more destruction, probably to Washington. For some reason it never reached its destination.

It was very obvious that Jason loved his family, his life, his job. He spoke of you several times; he spoke of your recent anniversary and some of the trips he had taken with his son.

Dahl asked the attendant to bring his buddy a beer, and Quillen's laptop never left its case. They laughed and talked about their jobs and families. Quillen told Dahl about Sue Anne and their two young children.

Dahl talked about how he and his wife, Sandy, a flight attendant, had just celebrated an anniversary, and how much fun the family had taking trips with Dahl's son, 15-year-old Matt.

They barely knew each other, but Quillen felt comfortable enough to ask Dahl something he could never remember asking a fellow traveler.

"Hypothetically speaking, say your life ended tomorrow, what would be the last thing you'd want to do?"

"I'd want to go to a NASCAR race," Dahl said. "I'd want to see Jeff Gordon race, and I'd want to meet him with my son." Quillen knew he was about to make Dahl happy. "I'm doing this customer appreciation thing at the track in Kansas City, and I've got a couple of extra tickets. You want to go?"

Dahl pulled out his planner. "I've got something on the 29th. But we'll catch an early-morning flight on the 30th and come home that night."

"Great. Give me a phone number and address, and when I get home to Nebraska, I'll FedEx you the tickets." Dahl asked how much they'd cost. Don't worry about it, Quillen said. They exchanged business cards. Dahl scribbled his cell number on the back of his.

Dahl thought for a moment and came up with a way to return the favor. He's in charge of flight simulator time for United in Denver, near his home in Littleton, Colorado.

"Next time you come out there, I'll let you land a 757 in Tokyo. It's the best video game in the world." Dahl checked his watch. Approaching 8 pm. No second beer. Regulations. But the conversation carried on. Quillen learned about airports where landing was difficult. Flying in bad weather. Engine failure. Just about everything a pilot dreads. They certainly didn't talk about hijackings. That just doesn't happen anymore.

If it's possible to become close friends in 4 hours, Jason and I accomplished this.

News of a fire at the World Trade Center broke up Quillen's meeting at the New Jersey hotel just off the George Washington Bridge. Quillen headed inside to call Sue Anne. Then he heard people yelling, "Look, look, look!" Quillen turned his head in time to see a fireball blast from the side of the second tower. Quillen raced back to call Sue Anne, but all phone service was out. Soon came word of the Pentagon disaster, and another plane crash in Pennsylvania.

The meetings were canceled. Quillen's co-workers found television sets and were searching for more information when a friend told Quillen he heard that one of the downed planes originated in Newark. "It didn't hit me at first," Quillen said. "Then, all of a sudden I realized..."

Quillen ran to his room and found Dahl's business card. He called the cell number on the back, begging Dahl to pick up. But the call was transferred to the pilot's voice mail.

I am not sure if any of you have access to his voice mail on his cell phone, but I was the one that left the long message, crying, and telling Jason and his family, God bless you all. I am sorry for that message if you do get it. I was very emotional when I left that message.

Like all of America's airline travelers, Quillen was stranded. One group was headed in a rental car to Texas, another to Minnesota. That did not help Quillen, who heard that perhaps there would be flights out of the Manchester, New Hampshire airport. That's where his group went.

The terminal was packed. A United representative jumped on the counter, announced there would be no flights out until Monday. This was Friday. Quillen hustled to the Hertz counter, told them he was headed to Lincoln, filled out the paperwork and headed west. He told his wife he'd be home on Saturday, and at 11:55 pm. that day he walked through his front door.

For the next few days Quillen was consumed by the idea of getting Matt Dahl to Kansas City so the teenager could meet Jeff Gordon. But how? Quillen can quote chapter and verse on Gordon, from his Ford Thunderbird days on the Busch circuit through his phenomenal years with Winston Cup. Quillen has a "24 CAR" Nebraska license plate on his red Monte Carlo with the plate border from Gordon's Wilmington, North Carolina dealership.

But none of that gets Quillen any closer to Gordon. Quillen had seen him up close, gotten pit passes, but was no more than a distant devotee like countless others. So he just took a chance. The same day he sent the letter to Sandy Dahl, he fired off an e-mail to Gordon. The next day he got a response from Gordon's public relations firm that made him ecstatic.

"Please extend an invitation to Jason's family to attend the DuPont hospitality tent next Sunday morning at Kansas Speedway," wrote Jon Edwards, Gordon's publicity director. "We will give them a tour and make sure they experience life in the garage area leading up to a Winston Cup race. We will also set up a meeting with Jeff."

That was Thursday. On Friday, Quillen got another message, this one on the telephone. "You wouldn't believe it," Quillen said Friday. "I've talked to Jeff Gordon and (Winston Cup team owner) Rick Hendrick today. They can't wait to meet Matt."

But would the Dahl family be there? Quillen had not heard. He didn't have the family's home phone number. He had sent his letter in overnight mail and knew it arrived late Thursday morning. Maybe Sandy Dahl wasn't responding to anybody.

Then Quillen got the call. Jason Dahl's funeral was Thursday in Littleton, and Sandy could not reach Quillen until Friday. "I told him his letter gave me the happiest feeling, and it made Matt happy as well," Sandy Dahl said. "There were so many wonderful things in it. I'm so grateful he decided to contact me. I'll always cherish that letter."

She then gave Quillen the good news. She was working on arrangements to send Matt and his grandfather to Kansas City. Matt, it turns out, is a veteran racing observer. He and his father loved going to the Indianapolis 500. They had planned on visiting as many tracks together as possible. Sandy wasn't surprised to hear that her husband was lining up a trip to Kansas Speedway.

Know in your heart that Jason is in a better place, and that he is looking down on us watching now. He would want us to be strong and continue on.

Perhaps the most popular driver on the Winston Cup circuit, Jeff Gordon receives hundreds of fan requests every month. He has heard a lot of touching stories. But Rob Quillen's plea stood out.

"You don't realize sometimes how big our sport is, and we're starting to see just how wide-scale this tragedy is," Gordon said last Saturday. "It's one story after another about people being affected by this. I had said I didn't really know anybody or didn't have any family or close friends I knew of who were directly affected by this, but this does affect me, that there was someone out there who was a big fan who had a son who is such a big fan. So we're going to do all we can. We probably would have tried to meet his little boy no matter what, but we're certainly going to try to do everything we can to put a smile on his face right now, because I know he's going through a tough time."

Gordon has already given some thought to how he will spend time with Matt Dahl at next weekend's race. He'll take him to a hospitality tent, attend chapel services and escort him to pre-race driver introductions.

"I'll ask him, 'Is there any question you have for me, any picture you want, any autograph you want?... Whatever it is you'd like to do within reason-- besides riding with me, maybe-- we're going to do everything we can," Gordon said.

Gordon hopes to keep in touch with Matt beyond next Sunday. "Different people touch our lives in different ways, and we touch people's lives in different ways," said Gordon, "and if there's a way a bond and friendship can be made out of it, that will be great."

I have no idea why I was placed next to Jason that night. ... The only clear thing I understand is that God wants me to work all of this out so that your family can come to the race, and your son gets an opportunity to meet Jeff Gordon and watch him race.

"My father-in-law said there must have been thousands of people flying that day, and what are the odds that Jason would sit next to me?" Quillen said. "I wasn't even supposed to be on that flight.

"Maybe somebody knew this was going to happen, and that's why we were together. Maybe I'm the person who is supposed to help his son meet Jeff Gordon. I don't know. But when I got back, I knew I'd feel terrible if I didn't at least try to get this done."

Article by Blair Kerkhoff from The Kansas City Star.
Randy Covitz also contributed to this story.

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