Dale Earnhardt won Daytona 500 with her lucky penny glued to dash; that moment endures

By Brendan Marks - The Charlotte Observer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Admittedly, this is not my story to tell.

It all began in 1998, when Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 for the only time in his legendary career. The day before that race, a girl named Wessa Miller gave Earnhardt a lucky penny. He glued it to his dash on the spot, and the next day, that penny was in the car as Earnhardt crossed the finish line.

Three years later, the seven-time Cup series champion was dead, killed in a crash at the same track.

But Wessa, who was never supposed to live past childhood, survived. And now, she’s about to turn 27.

She’s also the last living link to that moment from 20 years ago.

On the anniversary of Earnhardt’s historic win, I caught up with Wessa and her parents. They still live in tiny Phyllis, Ky., an old coal-mining town. Wessa is still the world’s greatest Earnhardt fan.

In the two decades that have passed, though, much has changed.

But this hasn’t. The impact of that original moment — that meeting all those years ago — remains.


‘Wasn’t supposed to make it past 5’

Wessa was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition where the spinal cord forms improperly and the tissue that surrounds it is either insufficient or missing altogether. She is paralyzed from the waist down, has no feeling in her legs or feet, and uses a wheelchair.

“She wasn’t supposed to make it past 5,” Juanita Miller, Wessa’s mother, says. “The odds were against us … we just leave it in the Lord’s hands and take it day-by-day.”

Wessa did make it, though. She may never have run in her backyard or jumped down the stairs at church, but she lived — and she loved racing.

And she really loved Dale Earnhardt.

“She is die-hard, die-hard, die-hard Earnhardt,” Booker Miller, Wessa’s father, says. “Anything with NASCAR and Earnhardt, she’s all for it.”

Before the 1998 Daytona 500, a family friend nominated Wessa for the Make-A-Wish Foundation program, which gives seriously ill children what they want most.

Wessa wanted to meet Earnhardt. She never could have known it would change both their lives.


Giving him the penny

Wessa got her wish, and she and her parents drove the 750 miles or so from their home to Daytona Beach, all to meet Earnhardt. Wessa brought two gifts for her favorite driver: a hunting video, because she knew he loved hunting, and a lucky penny.

When they arrived at Daytona International Speedway, though, the entire family was nervous. Earnhardt had blown an engine during practice, and they didn’t know what kind of mood he’d be in.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh Lord,’ it’s going to be awful,” Juanita says. “But it wasn’t. The look on her face was priceless, because that’s what she wanted, and there he was.”

When Wessa finally got to speak to Earnhardt, he knelt down and she gave him the penny.

“Giving him the penny, I guess (was my favorite part),” Wessa says. “He was a real nice guy.”

That’s where the legend picks up. Earnhardt grabbed some glue used for the lug nuts and plastered the penny in the middle of the dash. The next day, he won his only Daytona 500.

When they steered the car into the Daytona 500 museum, the penny was still there.

But for the next 10 years, no one heard from Wessa.

Then David Poole came along.

Poole had been the motorsports writer for the Observer since 1997, and he was there the day Earnhardt won his only 500. He was also there three years later when Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 and passed away, just 49 years old at the time.

And Poole, ever curious, wondered, whatever happened to the lucky penny girl?


‘That was her event, and she loved it’

In 2008, just before the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt’s victory, Poole found Wessa.

He found out that Earnhardt had contacted the Millers after the win and invited them to meet at Bristol later in the year. He also found out that Earnhardt gave the family a blue Astro van in 1998 so they could travel more easily with Wessa, who required four-hour trips to Lexington, Ky., every month to see medical specialists.

“(Earnhardt) told us,” Booker says, “he’d have had that penny insured for a million dollars if he knew he was gonna win that race.”

Poole also found out that Wessa had cried when she learned of Earnhardt’s death in 2001, and that the family made the trip to Charlotte for his funeral.

Even all those years later, Earnhardt was a huge part of their lives, ever since the penny and the Daytona 500 and Earnhardt’s victory.

“That was her event and she loved it,” Juanita says, “and she still loves it to this day, and if nothing never good happened to her anymore, she’d still love it.”


‘The least we could do’

Wessa’s story struck a chord with Poole. He’d see the Millers at the track every so often, and even went to stay with them for a weekend or two.

His 2008 story detailing Wessa’s life won awards, including a first place from the National Motorsports Press Association. Poole gave his award to Wessa, and Juanita still has it kept away.

More than that, Poole started a charity called Pennies for Wessa. When he announced it, he wrote that, “if Wessa’s lucky penny could make so much difference for Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, our pennies might make a difference for the Millers.”

Only, Poole never got to see how Pennies for Wessa would play out. In April of 2009, less than a year after starting the charity, Poole died of a heart attack. He was 50.

“It was heartbreaking,” Wessa says, “and emotional.”

The Millers again made the trip to North Carolina for a funeral, and for someone they’d come to love.

“That was the least we could do,” Juanita says, “for all that David had done for us.”


Making David proud

Until now, that’s where the story ended.

But as a little digging will prove, there’s much more left to be told.

At Poole’s funeral, his family asked for donations to three charities in lieu of flowers. Pennies for Wessa was one of them. Donations flooded in.

“He thought of Wessa like Wessa was his grandchild,” Booker says of Poole.

Combined with the money Poole had raised before his death, Pennies for Wessa generated about $10,000 — just enough for the Millers to buy Wessa a new van.

Wessa and her parents flew to New York in August of 2009 on one-way tickets, and they drove that new van all the way back to their double-wide trailer in Kentucky.

Unlike the one Earnhardt gave them that Wessa had outgrown, this one had a lift on the side for her wheelchair and a place for her to lay down on the inside.

“We didn’t ever think we’d have to worry about none of this,” Juanita says, “because nobody thought she’d live this long. I hate to say it, but that was the truth.”

But Wessa did live, and she had the van Poole had dreamed of getting her.

“I believe,” Juanita says, “that David would’ve been proud.”


Life goes on

In the nine years since they bought that new van, life has changed even more for the Millers.

They no longer live in the same double-wide, but they didn’t move far. Forty feet from the trailer is an old country store, built in 1962, and Juanita’s parents bought it 30 years ago. When her father died 15 years ago and her mother moved away to remarry, her cousin took over the shop.

He renamed it “The Lucky Penny.”

Last September, the Millers were given the chance to either take over the store (and accompanying brick home) for themselves, or sell and move with the money. They chose to stay — and to rename the store again.

Now it’s ‘Wessa’s: Home of the Lucky Penny.’

Juanita works there every day, juggling shifts in the deli kitchen with two routes as a schoolbus driver. Most days, she wakes up at 5 a.m. and isn’t home until past 9 at night.

She’ll stand on the checkered-flag kitchen floor, cooking up an Earnhardt-and-Wessa-inspired menu. The specialty, the Intimidator Burger, is three half-pound patties smothered in cheese, bacon, barbecue sauce and grilled onions.

As for Booker, he has continued working at the coal mine four minutes from their house. His shifts run 48 hours — from 10 in the evening on Fridays to 10 in the evening on Sunday. In his spare time, he works as a mechanic out of the back of their home.

The original Earnhardt van is still there.

“I walk by that van out there, I think how fortunate, how lucky we were to know him,” Booker says. “That’s a part of Dale Earnhardt.

“It’ll never leave here.”


The best there ever was

Then there’s Wessa.

Shortly after Poole published his story in 2008, Wessa began struggling with kidney infections and seizures. Sometimes they were every other month. Sometimes they were three times a week.

New medicines recently have meant fewer seizures, but Wessa still has them.

Not that she let that get her down.

“I’m doing good besides having the seizures and all that,” Wessa says. “I had one this morning, but I’m doing OK now.”

Wessa also graduated from high school in 2011, and spends most days with Juanita at the store. She greets everyone who comes in. Practically all of them know her name, and her story.

Some even bring gifts — still — even 20 years after Earnhardt’s victory. As recently as two weeks ago, a woman brought in an original leather Earnhardt No. 3 jacket for her. Wessa doesn’t wear it, though. It’s hung up for safekeeping.

As for her NASCAR fandom, it took a hit after Earnhardt’s death. Over time she transitioned to liking Dale Earnhardt Jr., but as she and Booker agree, it just wasn’t the same.

”Dale Earnhardt was the best there was,” Booker says, “and the best there ever will be.”


Finally worn out

The van the Millers bought with the Pennies for Wessa money was exactly what Wessa needed. It made trips to the doctor much easier, especially as Wessa’s seizures continued. They drove it and drove it.

And last September, it finally wore out.

For now, Booker and Juanita have cobbled together a makeshift van to keep transporting Wessa. It has no lift and no place for her to lay down. They unload and assemble bulky aluminum ramps every time Wessa has to get in or out of the van.

Another van like the one they purchased in 2008, even used and with 100,000 miles on it, would cost around $30,000 now.


‘I liked them, I loved them, and I miss them’

That brings us to today. And 20 years after Earnhardt’s historic win, his meeting with Wessa lives on.

“Still, you just can’t believe it sometimes,” Juanita says. “That it was you, that you lived this.

“He’ll never know what that visit meant and started in Wessa’s life.”

Wessa and her parents have never seen Earnhardt’s winning car or her lucky penny since that day. Their connection with NASCAR has faded some over the years, although Wessa now pulls for the Dillon brothers since Earnhardt Jr. is retired.

But even two decades later, Earnhardt’s legacy endures in Wessa.

So does Poole’s.

“Dale was the best there was,” Booker says, “the best there ever will be… and David Poole is right in that same class. He’s down that same road, one of the best there ever was.

“They both had a heart of gold.”

Wessa says she still thinks about her meeting with Earnhardt often, when she’s looking at her memorabilia on the store walls or the stacks of photos piled away at home. The original picture from that afternoon, of Wessa and Earnhardt holding up the penny, is autographed and blown up to poster size. It’s the first thing you see when you open the door to the Miller’s home.

And something else she thinks about? That she, the girl who was never supposed to make it — not the best race car driver of all time, or the award-winning journalist who covered him — is the only one left alive 20 years later.

“David and Dale were real good people,” Wessa says. “I liked them, I loved them and I miss them.”

As long as Wessa lives, so does the memory of Dale Earnhardt and David Poole. What they gave her in life, she carries for them in death.

One day when she reunites with Earnhardt and Poole, the lucky penny will stick around to remind the world of the story these three shared.

“Wessa never walked,” Juanita says. “Wessa’s never done a lot of things. But she was blessed to see Dale Earnhardt, and she’s been blessed with this story, this special thing in her life.

“How many normal people would love to have this story?”


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By Brendan Marks

The Charlotte Observer