Reading drag race first respite for Bob Benza

READING, Pa. (Oct. 3) -- P ro Stock driver Bob Benza is excited about competing in this weekend's 17th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals presented by Greased Lightning at Reading's Maple Grove Raceway, but not for the usual reasons. This time around,...

READING, Pa. (Oct. 3) -- P ro Stock driver Bob Benza is excited about competing in this weekend's 17th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals presented by Greased Lightning at Reading's Maple Grove Raceway, but not for the usual reasons. This time around, the 41-year-old from Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., plans to put his competitive fires on the backburner and just try to have some fun. After three-and-a-half weeks of personally dealing with the World Trade Center tragedy every day, Benza's certainly earned a chance to smile.

Like everyone else in the United States, Benza's world changed dramatically on Sept. 11. But unlike the millions of Americans that watched the events unfold on television, Benza and his huge staff of employees at the Arben Corporation, Benza's bridge building firm, witnessed the horror first-hand, many from within blocks of the devastation.

Miraculously, even though he had crews spread throughout the lower Manhattan area, Benza lost no employees that fateful morning and instead turned the biggest day of tragedy in American history into a rallying point for patriotism among his staff of 75 people.

"As soon as we realized what had happened and that we were under attack we put out a call for everyone to check in and let us know they were okay and then as quickly and as safely as possible, head back to the office," said Benza, who watched the twin towers collapse from his vantage point on the Hudson river. "Once everyone reassembled and people touched base with their families, I realized we were in a position to help. We work with steel and heavy equipment all day. It was obvious from early on that they might need our help.

"On top of everything else, the immediate feeling among every person here was that we wanted to help out in any way we could. We're New Yorkers and New York was attacked. That's our building down there. Feelings of anxiousness turned to patriotism in a hurry. We all decided we wanted to do something."

Due to his many ongoing projects, Benza regularly deals with the Port Authority, the New York Police Department, the Fire Department of New York, and the many rescue units that keep Manhattan safe. He immediately made some calls and offered the entire resources of the Arben Corporation to the City of New York.

"This became the largest rescue operation ever," said Benza, who personally knew 24 victims. "And with the number of firefighters and police officers that were lost all at once, it became pretty evident that they needed assistance. We sent in several teams loaded down with equipment to help try to cut through the rubble and save people. We used the torches and rigging equipment we use building bridges to assist the rescue workers.

"We also had some guys help out uptown by filling in at the various firehouses that were short-staffed. A lot of the firefighters and rescue personnel were called down to Ground Zero but their normal areas still needed to be covered. It was a mutual aid situation. Everyone helping where they were the most effective."

With all of his normal projects remaining on hold at the City of New York's request, Benza's entire staff kept up the assistance for the next several days, until the project regrettably moved from a search-and-rescue mission to a massive clean-up operation.

"We pulled back at that point because it basically turned into a giant construction site and the city subbed out the job to companies that specialize in debris removal," Benza said. "The reports my guys have given me are overwhelming. The magnitude of the destruction is impossible to capture on television or in a photo. I had a foreman tell me it will take at least a year to get down to street level."

Not surprisingly, security has become a bigger issue for Benza and staff as they return to the various jobsites they have scattered around the city on bridges, train stations, and other public areas. Employees must now wear photo identification at all times and special stickers on their hardhats to enter construction sites. "Nothing will ever be the same," Benza said.

"This affects us right at the heart. That's why we have to rebuild the towers exactly the way they were as a memorial to the people who died there and as a sign to the rest of the world that we can overcome this tragedy.

"The World Trade Center was some of the best engineering ever. We worked down there for two years in the early 1990s and I was constantly amazed. Think about it, those two buildings swallowed up a pair of huge airplanes filled with fuel. If it weren't for the heat weakening the infrastructure, the towers would still be standing.

"We've been very dejected up here, not just us but the whole city, the whole state. You reset your priorities. Drag racing is great and its fun but winning or losing on the dragstrip doesn't really amount to much. What matters the most to us now is making sure this never happens again anywhere in our country.

"The best part of this whole deal is seeing the people of the United States come together to overcome this tragedy. I understand that a lot of healing went on at the races in Memphis and Chicago. I'm sure it will be emotional in Reading, being so close to New York. Hopefully, what we do on the track will help everyone recover a little bit more. If we can put a smile on someone's face, it'll be worthwhile."

ESPN2 will provide limited television coverage of the rescheduled 17th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals. A package of qualifying highlights will be shown from 1:30-2:30 a.m. (ET) Sunday. Elimination coverage airs later that day from 8-10 p.m. (ET).

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Series NHRA
Drivers Bob Benza