Fans keep mourning Earnhardt

Posted: Wednesday, February 21, 2001

HAMPTON, Ga. -- When Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark decided to hold a memorial service at the track for Dale Earnhardt, he expected about 800 people to attend.

He underestimated the Intimidator's drawing power.

About 3,500 people attended Tuesday's 60-minute service dedicated to the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, who was killed Sunday during the final lap of the Daytona 500.

''I'm not surprised, though,'' Clark said. ''When we decided to do this about 4 p.m. (Monday), we started getting calls from all over. It's incredible how fast the word got out.''

Fans braved rainy weather to pay their last respects to Earnhardt, who drove the Richard Childress-owned No. 3 car. A replica of one of his cars was parked near the ticket office, and the ground surrounding the car was quickly filled with flowers, balloons, T-shirts and posters.

One sign on an easel near the front of the car said ''Racing in heaven with Davey, Alan, Neil, Adam, Kenny,'' in reference to late NASCAR drivers Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Neil Bonnett, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin.

Most of the people attending wore clothing bearing Earnhardt's likeness and name. Mark Fuller of nearby Austell had an Earnhardt hat, jacket and T-shirt.

''He was the epitome of NASCAR,'' said Fuller, who said he's been an Earnhardt fan since 1982. ''I don't think Sundays will ever be the same again.''

Clark first met Earnhardt in 1979, after ''Big E's'' first career win at Bristol, Tenn. Sunday in Daytona, Clark spoke with Earnhardt for the last time just before driver introductions.

''Just like everybody here, I long to see that No. 3 roll by one more time,'' Clark told the crowd. ''We've lost our friend, and the greatest competitor this sport has ever known.''

Track chaplain Eddie Barton told the story of when his grandson, Glen, met Earnhardt for the first time. A meeting had been arrangement by a member of Earnhardt's crew.

''Dale walked up and said, 'Where's Glen?''' Barton said. ''My grandson looked at me and asked, 'Does he know me?' I told him, 'I guess he does.' Dale took us into the garage and put my grandson on his knee, signed his cap and posed for a picture.

''That's what we'll all remember about Dale Earnhardt.''

In other tributes to Earnhardt:

n Flags flew at half-staff and more than a dozen bouquets were scattered in front of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in memory of Dale Earnhardt, who had driven in every Brickyard 400 and won the second NASCAR race at the famed track in 1995.

''The loss of Dale Earnhardt is an unbelievable and devastating tragedy to his family, his many fans and to the sport of auto racing,'' Speedway president Tony George said.

Flowers were placed by fans at the fountain in front of the Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum, along with other items such as Earnhardt hats, flags and model cars. A framed picture and sign read, ''Young or old, you were loved by all.''

n About 4,000 Earnhardt faithful attended a memorial at the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, located next to Talladega Superspeedway.

Earnhardt won 10 Winston Cup victories at the speedway -- more than any other driver.

There were 1,700 chairs set up for the memorial in the museum's auditorium. About 4,000 people showed up, many donning shirts and caps with ''Winston Cup'' or Earnhardt's No. 3.

''For me it came as big of a shock as when Elvis died,'' said Randy West of Oxford.

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