Hometown Fans Mourn Dale Earnhardt

Monday, February 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A single black balloon broke free from the wrought iron fence surrounding the sprawling complex housing Dale Earnhardt's racing teams.

A security guard caught the balloon and retied it next to the growing memorial of personalized tributes left by fans Monday in memory of the seven-time Winston Cup champion who died in a crash at the Daytona 500 the day before.

A sign said the compound was ``respectfully closed today.'' Still, employees of Dale Earnhardt Inc. solemnly filed in, past the security officers posted at every gate.

``It ain't too good in there. Everyone's trying their best,'' said Cam Ramey, the security chief.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second in Sunday's race, emerged from the complex shortly before noon in a black pickup truck. He was driven across the street and up a private drive to his home. Another truck with two of his friends followed.

``He's holding up as best he can under the circumstances,'' said Steve Crisp, the DEI employee who drove Earnhardt Jr. to his house.

``There is a lot of character in that family and in that organization,'' said H.A. ``Humpy'' Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway in nearby Concord.

He said he thought the teams still would participate in this weekend's Dura-Lube 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. ``Knowing how Dale would have felt, I think so,'' Wheeler said.

Hundreds of fans left poems, letters and pictures at the compound, quietly taking in the scene, occasionally wiping away a tear. ``Forever A Champion,'' one sign said. ``R.I.P. Intimidator. You'll Race In Our Hearts Forever,'' said another.

Cars crawled by on the narrow two-lane highway, lights on and black No. 3 flags flapping from windows. Occasionally, an 18-wheeler rolled past and blew its horn in respect.

When a team wins a race, tradition at Dale Earnhardt Inc. calls for a checkered flag to fly in front of the complex until the next race begins the following week. On Monday, the flag was at half-staff, representing both Michael Waltrip's victory at Daytona and Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the race.

``It's like Superman is dead,'' said Craig Freshwater, who made the 30-mile trip from Charlotte to pay his respects. ``Heroes aren't supposed to die.''

Twelve miles up the road in Kannapolis, Earnhardt's hometown, a lone police officer stood outside the home of Earnhardt's mother, Martha. The blinds were drawn and about a dozen cars lined the driveway.

A sign in front of a nearby drug store said, ``We'll Miss You Dale.''

Fans also headed for the town of Welcome, where Earnhardt's team was based at Richard Childress' race shop. Among them was 59-year-old Gary Farabee of Lexington.

``He was a guy you either loved or loved to hate,'' he said. ``But it's just not the same this morning. It just doesn't feel right.

``Over the last year, I think he exposed his inner self, his softer side, a little more,'' Farabee said. ``I don't think I pulled for him as much as a racer as I pulled for him as a man.''

Allen Wrenn of Summerfield, who was accompanied by his wife Blanche, said he had known the Earnhardt family since Dale's father, Ralph, raced cars as a professional.

``He really raced. He didn't pull no punches,'' Wrenn said. ``If he hit somebody, that was OK, and if somebody hit him, that was OK, too.''

Billy Simmerson, 30, of Salisbury, brought his 1-year-old son, Chris, to the shop. ``I don't think NASCAR will ever be the same without him,'' he said. ``I know it won't be nearly as interesting.''



The Earnhardt family has asked that instead of flowers, donations can be sent to the Foundation for the Carolinas, a nonprofit philanthropic organization. The address is:

Foundation for the Carolinas

In Honor of Dale Earnhardt

P.O. Box 34769

Charlotte, N.C. 28234-4769