Monday, February 18, 2013

The Lucky Penny Girl

You can’t use them in vending machines.  On the street, few people bother to bend over and pick them up.  They cost more to make than they’re worth.  It will surprise no one when the U.S. penny goes out of commission. 
But a penny can be worth more than one cent.  Sometimes, a penny can have value beyond measure, like the one brought to a NASCAR race by an extraordinary little girl whose lucky coin found its way into the sport’s lore and the hearts of millions of fans.
The little girl, Wessa Miller, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spine.   Doctors gave her three days to live, a grim diagnosis based on dire medical facts.  But there was a lot about Wessa the doctors couldn’t see.  X-rays, scans and blood samples can’t detect courage, determination and faith. 
Wessa fought hard and made it home, and the doctors said she’d live only two years. Wessa again proved them wrong.  After she celebrated a second birthday, the specialists called that a gift; she probably wouldn’t make it to five.  Wessa had that birthday, too, and the medical experts said 10 would be a miracle. When the girl who wasn’t expected to make it out of the children’s ICU ward was named eighth grade Homecoming Queen, doctors finally had the good sense to stop setting a time frame on a miracle life.
“Wessa is tough, she doesn’t complain. She lives by God’s good grace, that’s the only way I can explain it,” said her dad, Booker Miller.  Twice, Wessa’s wheelchair tipped over and she busted up her mouth and teeth.  Wessa didn’t utter a cross word.  “I could have sued, but I’m not that kind of person to put blame on someone else,” Booker said.  “Wessa’s tough.  She healed up.”  
Booker left high school at 16 to work in a Kentucky coal mine.   He spent 26 years below ground, narrowly escaping cave-ins and tasting copper for three days afterwards.  Consider him a credible authority on human toughness and grit. 
Wessa attends church “every time the doors are open,” according to Booker.  Besides her religion and family, NASCAR is Wessa’s great source of comfort and joy.  “She doesn’t get to enjoy a lot in life, but she does get a lot of pleasure from racing.”
From the time she could watch television, Wessa had been a fan of Dale Earnhardt.  So when she was chosen for the Make-A-Wish program, which grants wishes for seriously ill children, the six-year-old didn’t hesitate. She wanted to meet Dale Earnhardt.  
Wessa’s mom Juanita was concerned.  Her precious daughter had so much vested in a man Juanita knew little about other than a gun-slinging reputation for aggressive driving.  Earnhardt was aptly nicknamed “Ironhead” and “The Intimidator.”  He wore the sport’s black hat, unafraid to move anyone out of the way, even if it wrecked the field.  His hair-trigger temper and swinging moods were difficult to predict.  Who knew what he’d say to Wessa?  She might wind up greatly disappointed, maybe even emotionally hurt.
“I knew Dale from the TV, and was worried he’d be moody and mean to Wessa,” Juanita said.  Yet she wasn’t going to try to sway Wessa from her dream.  Juanita knew how much the driver meant to her daughter.  A trip was scheduled for the family to attend the 1998 Daytona 500, where Wessa would meet her idol at a crucial race.  
Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR champion, had won 30 races at Daytona International Speedway, but never when it counted most, at the Daytona 500.  He appeared to be cursed in NASCAR’s marquee event.  Despite winning every possible important race in all possible ways, he’d always been denied at the Great American Race.  “We’ve lost this race just about every way you can lose it,” Earnhardt said after one of his 19 unsuccessful tries.  “We’ve been out-gassed, out-tired, out-run, out every-thinged.”  Once, his tire went down, and Earnhardt claimed a chicken bone cut it on the backstretch. Twice, he clearly had the best car and after driving 499 miles, still didn’t win.   What Dale lacked was luck.  Little Wessa Miller wanted to bring him some.
“Dale was my favorite race car driver, so I wanted to give him my lucky penny,” Wessa said. “I thought it would help him win the race.” 
The day before the Daytona 500, the Millers waited for Dale in the garage area as he finished his final test runs.  Booker was uncharacteristically anxious.  He heard Dale was upset with his sputtering car.  There was talk the engine might have to be replaced.  As the minutes ticked down before the meeting with Wessa, he wondered if Earnhardt would be tense and distant.  But the Intimidator strode in wearing a wry smile.  He got down on one knee, right beside Wessa’s wheelchair.  It was like no one else in the room existed.  He spent 15 minutes with her. 
“When Dale met Wessa, I saw such a different man,” Juanita said.  “He had a heartfelt goodness. They made a connection you could see.”
“I guess Dale was a mean person on the track, but he had a soft spot big as heaven,” Booker said.  “He got right down to her level and had nothin’ to say to nobody but Wessa.   There was a real gentleness in him.  He told her, ‘Wessa, you can do anything you want.’  He meant it.  She’s never forgotten that.”
            As Wessa reached from her wheelchair to hand over her lucky penny, the driver was hatching a plan.  When the crowds dissipated and the cameras went away, crusty old Earnhardt rummaged around the garage for some adhesive and secretly glued the copper coin to his dashboard.  “Dale had enough yellow glue smeared around to put about 100 pennies on that dash,” said his crew chief Larry MacReynolds. The next day, after 19 years of heartbreak and futility, Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500.
The Millers watched an unprecedented celebration.  As Earnhardt drove down pit road toward Victory lane, hundreds of crewmen from every team lined pit road to congratulate him, touching Dale’s outstretched hand as he drove by. 
            Saturday’s meeting with Dale had already been the best day of Wessa’s life.  Sunday’s win slathered icing all over the cake.  The family left Daytona Beach for Disney World without knowing Wessa’s penny was in Dale’s car.  The secret didn’t hold for long, and the dream trip would get even better.  The next day, the news media tracked the Millers down, and NASCAR Nation learned of The Lucky Penny Girl. 
            But her story didn’t end there. Two months later, to say thank you, Earnhardt arranged for the family to attend the NASCAR race at Bristol.  It was his turn to present a gift.  With no fanfare, he gave the Millers with a much-needed Chevy van for frequent trips to doctors 175 miles away.  He even made sure the van was blue, Wessa’s favorite color.  The vehicle was a godsend for two or three weekly treks from their home in Phyllis, Ky. to the University of Kentucky Medical Center.  The Millers have put more than 150,000 miles on the van getting to Wessa’s medical appointments.
            Two years later, to celebrate Wessa’s ninth birthday, Juanita planned a special gift – a trip to Earnhardt’s Chevy dealership for its annual open house. Mother and daughter quietly joined the back of the long line cueing for Dale’s autograph.  When they got to the front, Earnhardt shouted out, “Wessa!” and gave her a big hug.  For the rest of the meet-and-greet, Wessa sat next to her hero who was wearing his patented crooked smile underneath that bushy mustache which could have swept a city street clean.
            That would be the last time Wessa spent time with Dale.  She was at home watching the 2001 Daytona 500 when the black No. 3 car crashed in the final turn on the last lap.  The announcers weren’t saying much.  The car was crunched against the wall.  There was no sign of Dale.  Wessa was crying as the family prepared for church.  Juanita said she’d find out how Dale was doing after church.  There, the Millers heard Dale was gone.  “When we got home, I said, ‘Wessa, baby, mamma’s got something to tell you…’”
Wessa cried for days. She stayed away from NASCAR for a year. Gradually, the sting lessened.  She reclaimed her old spot in front of the TV on Sunday afternoons, and grew to become an avid fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
“Dale’s death is something we’re reminded of every day,” Booker said.  “He’s the best there ever is.  He was a big part of Wessa’s life.  And he still is part of her life.”
Seven years after the tragic accident, Wessa would be reminded of that, and again enter the consciousness of NASCAR fans, thanks to motorsports reporter David Poole.  As the 2008 season approached, Poole was preparing a tenth anniversary story of the 1998 Daytona 500 for The Charlotte Observer.  Other reporters were covering Earnhardt’s emotional win.  Poole remembered the lucky penny girl.  “Every reporter who’s ever written a story knows the ‘Where are they now?’ one,” he said.  “The problem was, I literally didn’t know where Wessa lived.”
Scouring the internet, Poole found the name “Wessa Miller” on the blog of a professional wrestler who had appeared at a middle school festival in Kentucky.  With the Millers home state revealed, Poole was able to get the family’s telephone number from the Kentucky chapter of Make-A-Wish. 
He and Juanita spent two and a half hours on the phone.  “I walked downstairs and told my wife, Katy, if I can’t write this story, take me off this job,” Poole said.  “I felt like a stenographer; Wessa’s story wrote itself.”   
The article ran on the front page, and offers to help the Millers poured in.  Caring for her daughter was always a daunting task for Juanita, who drives a handicapped-accessible school bus Wessa rides to school when well enough to attend.  Now Juanita also had to worry about Booker, who’d gone through emergency heart surgery. 
In more than 15 years covering NASCAR, Poole had seen race fans and drivers give millions of dollars to the sport’s charities. It was his time to give back.  He established the “Pennies for Wessa Fund” to assist the Millers with medical bills, travel expenses to faraway doctors, and home renovations for Wessa’s special needs.  A special online auction also raised funds for the family.  One of the items for bid was a lunch and race shop tour with David Poole. 
“You’re not supposed to be part of the story,” the veteran reporter and SiriusXM radio personality said. “But sometimes the story becomes part of you.  Every one of us has good days and bad days. A good day for the Millers is when nothing really bad happens.  The things they deal with on their good days would be a pretty bad day for anyone else.  But they look at every single day as an absolute gift.  If all of us thought like that it would be a much better world.”
Working with the “NASCAR Angels” TV program, the NASCAR Foundation and Motor Racing Outreach, Poole arranged to bring Wessa Miller and her family back to Bristol Motor Speedway in 2008.  Wessa was featured in a “Heart of NASCAR” segment on the show and was introduced during pre-race ceremonies, waving to the cheering crowd with the breezy confidence of a president at his inaugural parade.  She also met Dale Jr., giving him a 1988 penny to match his car number, 88.  Lightning didn’t strike twice – Earnhardt had a tough race – but no one really expected it to.
There really can only be on Lucky Penny.  The coin Wessa handed to Junior’s dad is the one NASCAR fans remember.  It remains glued to the dashboard of the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, now on display in Childress Museum, in Welcome, N.C.
Wessa Miller often thinks about that day, and the wondrous time spent with a hero who declared she could do anything.  She’d always liked Dale because he was so tough.  Now she’d be like him. Wessa had had been suffering regular seizures before coming to Bristol, where Dale once brought her family.  Back at that track, she didn’t have a single one all weekend.  When the Millers returned to Kentucky, so did the seizures.  Wessa didn’t complain.  Dale wouldn’t. 
Juanita and Booker continue to live one day at a time, appreciating each as a gift to spend with a courageous daughter who defies the odds while delighting and surprising whoever she meets. Like that penny which softened even the Intimidator, they consider themselves very, very lucky. 

Less than two months after arranging for the Millers to return to Bristol, David Poole died of a massive heart attack.  He was 50 years old.  Fans who wish to honor David or help the girl who found a place in his hear can donate directly to the “Pennies For Wessa” Fund by visiting, or by mail at Pennies For Wessa, Attention: Mike Damron, Community Trust Bank, P.O. Box 39, Mouthcard, KY 41548

For more stories like this, The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans by Andrew Giangola is available on and wherever fine books are sold.