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Intimidator mourned at track, around country

Posted: Tuesday, February 20, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The newspapers were all gone before sunrise. The fans lined up seven-deep to place flowers at a makeshift monument outside the track. A hastily scrawled sign on a pickup truck read, ''No. 3, RIP.''

Daytona Beach was in mourning Monday, as race fans began the solemn retreat home after the death of the great Dale Earnhardt.

''I guess I'll go out to the races to watch his son, now,'' said race fan Mark Yarashefski of Highland Falls. N.Y., dressed head to toe in Earnhardt's signature black. ''But it's never going to be the same.''

The top officials at NASCAR admitted as much, even though they wouldn't stray from their traditional stances. Their afternoon news conference was full of pronouncements about what they wouldn't do.

They wouldn't cancel next week's race in Rockingham, N.C., they wouldn't immediately decide whether to retire Earnhardt's famous No. 3 Chevrolet and they refused to take stopgap safety measures following their latest tragedy.

They also had no immediate plans for a special tribute.

''We're not going to react for the sake of reacting,'' NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

Helton said NASCAR officials had impounded Earnhardt's car and were holding it in an undisclosed location to analyze the accident.

Earnhardt's family made no funeral arrangements as of Monday. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second Sunday in the Daytona 500, said his family appreciated the outpouring of support.

''We'll get through this,'' he told WBTV in Charlotte, N.C. ''I'm sure he'd want us to keep going, and that's what we're going to do.''

Dr. Steve Bohannon, who tried to save Earnhardt's life as the driver sat slumped in the wreckage, said the autopsy confirmed what everyone suspected: Earnhardt died on impact when his car slammed into the wall on the final turn of the final lap.

The 49-year-old driver sustained a skull fracture that ran from the front to the back of his head. It was much the same injury responsible for the deaths of three NASCAR drivers last year.

Once again, the debate began whether the Head And Neck Support (HANS) device would have saved his life.

''He was just doing his job,'' Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip said. ''Close racing sometimes makes contact happen and sometimes contact happens with the wall. I don't think anyone could have done anything any different in that situation to help Dale.''

Newspapers were sold out before sunrise, as Earnhardt lovers clamored for any kind of memory. The Orlando Sentinel and News-Journal of Daytona Beach hastily printed thousands more copies to satisfy unprecedented demand.

Outside the track, fans had already come up with thousands of ways to pay tribute and send their message.

The centerpiece of a makeshift memorial to The Intimidator was a wide semicircle of white posterboard sitting atop bronze easels outside the Daytona USA museum.

Among the hundreds of poems and heartfelt messages scrawled on the boards was one simple thought, offered by a couple in Texas: ''The Master. You Will Be Missed By All.''

Indeed, there is no way to replace Earnhardt, the Man in Black, who always stole the show as he circled NASCAR's well-worn tracks, collecting trophies, friends and enemies wherever he went.

Waltrip said his victory was great, but he had been looking forward to the celebration even more. He had been close with Earnhardt for years, and Earnhardt finally hired him this year to drive a car for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

''I couldn't wait to get that big grab, that big hug on the neck, and to hear him say, 'That's what I'm talking about, right there,''' Waltrip said.

The hug never came, and now NASCAR must figure a way to fill the void.

''It's going to take time, if we ever fill it,'' NASCAR chairman Bill France said. ''I'm sure we will. Life has to go on.''

To many, Earnhardt came off as brutish, ill-tempered and sullen. Yet he was remarkably popular, nonetheless. He was the quintessential antihero, a mysterious, brooding figure who would trade paint with anyone, and looked like a winner even when he lost.

''He was exciting, he embodied the sport,'' said Jim Hunter, president of Darlington Raceway. ''Even if you didn't like him, you respected him. It will be some time before we know about the impact.''

He had a personality borne out of the old-school era of stock car racing -- more gruff than polish -- but a new-age business sense that helped him take advantage of his persona as NASCAR surged in popularity.

Within hours of his death, it was easy to see the mass-marketing machine he had created. Fans around the country rushed for a souvenir, one last black hat or T-shirt or anything marked No. 3.

''It's almost like they lost someone in the immediate family,'' said Mark Phillips, general manager of a sports merchandise store in Dallas. ''He will be sorely missed.''

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