Drivers Honor Dale Earnhardt
Thursday, February 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) â€” Some of NASCAR's biggest names said goodbye to its biggest star Thursday during a memorial service that was as simple and solemn as Dale Earnhardt was bold and brash.
On a cold, rainy day, stock car drivers, crew members dressed in black, racing sponsors and friends gathered with Earnhardt's family at cavernous Calvary Church to remember The Intimidator, who was killed Sunday in a crash during the last lap of the Daytona 500.
At the end of the 22-minute, nationally televised service, Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, walked to the front of the church, turned toward a section seating NASCAR drivers and officials and blew them a kiss.
``Thank you,'' she whispered before she and young daughter Taylor were escorted out by a state trooper.
Flowers, including a black-white-and-red arrangement in the shape of Earnhardt's famous No. 3, filled the area around the pulpit. Earnhardt was buried Wednesday at an undisclosed location after a family-only service in nearby Mooresville.
The congregation included drivers Terry and Bobby Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, and Bobby and Donnie Allison; raceway executives Bruton Smith and Eddie Gossage; and members of the Earnhardt team, wearing black shirts with the shop logo on the pocket.
With racing to resume this weekend at nearby Rockingham, the NASCAR community has had little time to grieve. Driver Rusty Wallace said he attended the service to properly say goodbye to his friend and rival.
``None of us were ready to let Dale go and we will miss him terribly,'' Wallace said. ``God only created one Dale Earnhardt and no one will ever replace him, neither in our sport or in our hearts.''
Another driver who attended the service was Junior Johnson, who raced against Earnhardt's father, Ralph, and met the NASCAR star as a child.
``NASCAR will know that Earnhardt ain't in that race in Rockingham and it will hurt for a little while,'' Johnson said before the service. ``It'll get by, but it's going to hurt. It's a sad day for NASCAR and the sport.''
Dale Beaver, a chaplain with the Motor Racing Outreach ministry, eulogized Earnhardt not as Old Ironhead, but as a warm and caring father.
He described his anxiety when he first met the driver, interrupting Earnhardt's lunch to get permission for Taylor to go on a camping trip.
``I thought, `He's eating bear and I'm going to be dessert,''' Beaver said. But, he recalled, ``I didn't come into the presence of a racing icon or an intimidating figure. I came into the presence of a dad, a father, who was concerned about his daughter.''
Thursday's service also featured songs by country music star Randy Owen.
Outside the massive, glass-walled church, fans who wore No. 3 jackets, hats and shirts milled about before the service.
Truck driver Scott Poole and three friends made a 7 1/2 -hour trip from Hagerstown, Md., just to stand outside the invitation-only ceremony.
Poole said he has been an Earnhardt fan since 1987, when Earnhardt spoke to him and other young competitors in a soapbox derby.
``This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, just to be part of the memory,'' he said.
Expressions of sympathy for Earnhardt's family extended far beyond the memorial service.
At Texas Motor Speedway, all on-track activity was halted during the service.
Charlotte-area funeral homes offered the public guest books to sign, as did funeral homes in eastern parts of the state. Outside North Carolina, funeral homes as far away as Ohio and New York did the same.