Originally published Feb. 17, 2008
From the time she could first sit in front of a television, Wessa Miller was a Dale Earnhardt fan.
She got that from her daddy.
"We were then, we are now, and we always will be Dale Earnhardt fans," Booker Miller says. "He's the best there ever was and the best there ever will be."
By 1998, when Wessa was 6, Earnhardt had won 30 races at Daytona International Speedway.
But the seven-time Cup Series champion had never won the Daytona 500, stock-car racing's biggest event. Twice in 19 previous tries he had been leading with one lap left, only to be denied.
Wessa believed she had something to change that, and on a dream trip from her home in Kentucky to that year's Daytona 500, she got to deliver it.
All Earnhardt needed, Wessa believed, was a little luck.
So she brought him a penny.
Sometimes Juanita Miller is sad when she thinks about all her youngest daughter has missed. Wessa can't do what other kids do, can't go on a sleepover, or play outside, or run a race.
She has spina bifida, a congenital condition in which the spinal cord is malformed and lacks skeletal and soft tissue coverings to protect it. She has no feeling from the waist down and uses a wheelchair.
"A lot of days you get up and it starts out good," Juanita says. "But then you end up in the medical center not knowing what's going to happen. You just learn to take the good days and go with them."
Wessa has had two dozen surgeries and makes frequent trips, four hours each way, from her home in Phyllis, Ky., to doctors in Lexington, about 175 miles away.
Doctors first said Wessa would do well to reach her second birthday. When that passed, the doctors said they hoped Wessa could make it to 5.
Now, she's 16.
"We've been blessed," Juanita says, "and hopefully we'll continue to be blessed." This is a family in which no blessing is taken lightly.
But what happened 10 years ago this week is something so good Juanita says she never even could have imagined it.
"I think that's what the Lord does," she says. "He evens things out."
Booker says "a kid from up the holler" nominated Wessa for the Make-A-Wish program, which grants wishes for seriously ill children. The only wish she ever thought about, he says, was meeting Earnhardt. Juanita wasn't sure. "I knew he was supposed to be this rough, tough guy," she says. Wessa had her mind made up.
"Before we left to go to Daytona, we were at church," Juanita says. "One of the deacons said a prayer for Wessa and all of us.
"He said, 'Lord, we pray that Wessa will have a special experience she will always remember.' "
That February, the Millers began the 750-mile trip from Phyllis to Daytona Beach, Fla., with two gifts for Earnhardt.
One was a grouse hunting video given to Wessa by an uncle, because Wessa knew Earnhardt loved hunting. The other was the lucky penny.
But somewhere on the way to Daytona, she lost the penny. She settled on another, just as lucky as the first, but that one got misplaced, too.
That was OK. There was time to find another and rub luck into it before Wessa met Earnhardt.
It was Valentine's Day, the day before the 500. The Millers and several other families with Make-A-Wish children were brought to a small office in the track's garage area.
Wessa waited, with the grouse hunting tape and lucky penny, while Earnhardt and the rest of the drivers completed their final practice.
Word came that Earnhardt wasn't happy with his black No. 3 Chevrolet.
"They said, 'We don't know what kind of mood he's going to be in,' " Juanita says. "I thought, 'Well that's just great.' "
Then Earnhardt came in.
"He was so opposite from what people had made him out to be," Juanita says. "He was so good to Wessa, and you could tell it was heartfelt goodness."
Most people, Juanita says, stand over those in wheelchairs and bend down to talk to them. Not Earnhardt.
"Every time he talked to her, he squatted and talked to her eye to eye," she says. Booker watched Earnhardt, admiring the attention he paid to the children.
"Dale spent 10 or 15 minutes talking to Wessa," says Booker. "The whole time, nobody else could say anything to him. That was his time with her. He was that way with all of the kids who were there that day."
Each child brought something for Earnhardt. He'd take the gifts and hand them off, and before long the people with him had armloads. But Booker remembers noticing that Earnhardt kept Wessa's penny the whole time.
"I told him it was going to bring him good luck in the race," Wessa said. "He said, 'I hope it does.' " How could it not? After all, it was lucky penny No. 3.
J.R. Rhodes, Earnhardt's public relations agent for many years, remembers Wessa and the penny, too. "Earnhardt went right over to the car and got some of the glue they use on lug nuts," Rhodes says. "He glued the penny on the dash. He did it himself."
The Millers came to the race the next day not knowing what Earnhardt had done.
With two laps to go, Earnhardt had his car in the lead but Bobby Labonte and Jeremy Mayfield were close behind. As the leaders came off Turn 2, cars began wrecking behind them. NASCAR rules are different now, but in 1998 that meant whichever car got back to the start-finish line first would win the race.
Coming through Turns 3 and 4, Rick Mast slid his slower car to the inside to give Earnhardt room to go around him. Labonte and Mayfield each wanted a shot to deny Earnhardt again, but it wouldn't happen this time.
Not with Wessa's lucky penny riding in the Black No. 3.
Earnhardt got to the line first, then cruised around one last time behind the pace car to take the checkered flag.
"The Daytona 500 is ours," Earnhardt said when he climbed out of his race car. "We won it. We won it. Won it." The deacon's prayer had most certainly been answered. The Daytona 500 of 1998 was memorable, and not just for Wessa.
"I look back now at how everything about that trip just fell into place," Juanita says. "Wessa got her wish, and so did Dale."
The Millers were elated but left Daytona with no idea Wessa's penny was part of the story.
"We went to Disney World the next day," Booker says. "And then we found out they were looking for us." NASCAR impounds the car that wins the Daytona 500, as is, and puts it on display at the Daytona 500 Experience museum for a year, until the next winner's car takes its place.
Earnhardt wanted to retrieve Wessa's penny. He wanted an eighth championship, and that coin might have still had luck left in it.
But because the penny was on the car when it raced, it stayed on in the museum. The Millers returned to Daytona from Disney World, went to the museum and saw the car.
And Wessa's penny.
That happy ending was just the beginning.
In April 1998, Earnhardt arranged to have the Millers come to Bristol, Tenn., for a race there. He'd only spent a few minutes with Wessa at Daytona and, after the luck her penny had brought him, he wanted more.
He took her to the infield and introduced her to all the drivers.
He also offered her a gift, from his Chevy dealership in Newton.
"Dale asked Wessa if she wanted one of the brand-new Corvettes he had on the car lot," Juanita says. "Wessa said she'd rather have a blue pickup truck."
In the end, what he gave the Millers was more practical.
"We talked to her about it and decided we could sure use a van we could get her around in," Booker says. That December, Wessa and her folks picked a new blue Astro van.
Now, of course, the Millers were bigger fans than ever.
"We came home from church every Sunday and nobody went anywhere until the race was off," Booker says.
For Wessa's ninth birthday in October 2000, Juanita took her to Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet for Earnhardt's annual open house.
"We got in line, just like everybody else," Juanita says. "When we got to the front, Dale said, 'Wessa!' and got up and hugged her. He said to me, 'Mama, you go and do whatever you want to, and Wessa can sit right here beside me.' "
Wessa remembers that day, too. "I was just ecstatic," she says.
Wessa was watching on television when Earnhardt's car hit the wall in Turn 4 on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
"She was crying, but we got ready and went on to church," Juanita says. "I told her that after church we could find out how Dale was doing.
"She said, 'But, Mommy, I know he's hurt.' "
Tony Stewart had wrecked that day, too, and Juanita told her they'd said Stewart was all right.
"Wessa said, 'But Dale didn't get out of the car.' I said, 'Baby, we'll see.' "
Juanita's cousin came to church late, with news Earnhardt had died. Juanita waited until she got Wessa home to tell her.
"She just cried and cried," Juanita says.
The Millers got in the Astro and drove to Hickory, spending the night with family, then came to Earnhardt's memorial service in Charlotte.
For a year or more, Wessa wouldn't watch races on TV. She couldn't.
Gradually, her interest returned. The Millers had a living room full of people cheering eight days ago when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Budweiser Shootout in the first event of a new NASCAR season. Wessa will watch today's 50th Daytona 500 on television, too.
"She still pulls for the Richard Childress Racing cars," Juanita says. "She pulls for Dale Jr., too, but she can't stand it when he's not winning. If somebody passes she'll turn it off."
The Astro still runs. It has 139,000 miles, almost all from trips to doctors.
It does not have a wheelchair ramp. Wessa has grown and Juanita has to put her on a blanket in the floorboard to make her even remotely comfortable for the long rides to Lexington to see medical specialists. The 25-mile trips to Pikeville to see her family physician aren't quite as hard.
Booker and Juanita have looked for a new van, one equipped for someone like Wessa. They haven't found one they can afford.
Booker has retired after working in coal mines and driving trucks hauling coal for more than 30 years. Juanita drives the wheelchair-accessible school bus that Wessa rides to the high school where she's a freshman.
"Wessa makes good grades, but she's started having seizures and they affect her memory," Juanita says. "She'll study something one day and the next day it's just not there. I've thought about trying to talk her into quitting school because it just seems like it's such a struggle sometimes. But she loves being around other people so much."
Last year, in eighth grade, Wessa was homecoming queen.
"She never complains and she has never been a child who gives us a minute's trouble," Juanita says.
Not long ago, one of Wessa's young friends lost the fight with his own health issues.
When the Millers went to pay their respects, his mother told Wessa about a conversation she'd had with her son.
"She said he told her that as soon as he saw Wessa in heaven someday, the first thing he was going to do was challenge her to a foot race," Juanita says.
Wessa, she said, put her arm around the grieving mother's neck and said, "We'll do that.
"Me, him and Dale Earnhardt."
Juanita has boxes of memories. She also has pictures, including one she took on Valentine's Day 10 years ago. In it, Earnhardt is holding the lucky penny and giving the thumbs-up signal. Wessa also has her thumb in the air.
"We took Dale a copy of that one at Bristol that time," she said. "He signed it and I had it blown up real big. It's on the wall."
It's also in the Richard Childress Racing Museum in Welcome, where the car in which Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 race is on display.
Wessa's penny is still glued to the dash.
Want to help children's wishes come true?
Wessa Miller and her family went to the 1998 Daytona 500 as part of the Make-A-Wish program, which grants wishes for children between ages 2 and 18 who have life-threatening medical conditions, to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.
Seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty was the first NASCAR driver involved in granting a child's wish in 1985. Since then, dozens of drivers have met with these special children.
You can help make more wishes come true by referring children, donating money and/or frequent flyer miles or volunteering your time. To learn more about how to help a local Make-A-Wish chapter, go to www.wish.org.