Thousands pack Thursday's memorial

Updated: February 23, 2001, 7:56 AM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Maybe this is the way Dale Earnhardt would have wanted it.

A simple, solemn, brief memorial. And when it was over, everybody went racin'.

In a nationally televised service that lasted 22-minutes, drivers, crew members dressed in black, friends and sponsors gathered Thursday with Earnhardt's family to say goodbye to The Intimidator.

The ceremony, at cavernous Calvary Church, was more about the man than the racing great, who was killed Sunday in a wreck on the final turn of the Daytona 500 at age 49.

There was almost nothing connecting the service to a seven-time Winston Cup champion. No pictures, memorabilia or references to his storied career save for a red, white and black floral arrangement in the shape of "3" near the pulpit.

Perhaps the greatest connection was the sight of his son, Dale Jr., walking into church with Michael Waltrip, who won Daytona driving one of Earnhardt's cars.

The only speakers to address the 2,500 invited guests were two ministers. Longtime friend Randy Owens, from the country band Alabama, sang and played his acoustic guitar.

At the end of the service, Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, walked to the front of the church, turned toward the crowd and blew two kisses.

"Thank you, thank you," she whispered before she and 12-year-old daughter Taylor were escorted out.

Driver Rusty Wallace said he attended the service to properly say goodbye to his friend and rival. Like the rest of the NASCAR community, Wallace left for Rockingham after the service to prepare for Sunday's race.

"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."

The congregation also included drivers Terry and Bobby Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and Sterling Marlin, who received hate mail and telephone death threats from people who blamed him for the fatal crash. The cars driven by Earnhardt and Marlin made contact moments before Earnhardt slammed into the wall.

Another driver at 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. "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 him, 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."

It drew the only laughter and smiles of a service marked by long faces but few tears a day after Earnhardt was buried in his hometown of Kannapolis, about 25 miles from Charlotte.

President Bush, another Earnhardt friend, sent longtime aide Joe Allbaugh to attend the service Thursday.

"I am saddened by the untimely loss of this American legend and want to express my deepest sympathy to his family, friends and fans," Bush said in a statement.

Bill France Jr., chairman of the board of the stock car sanctioning body, said after the service that the attention paid to Earnhardt's death "shows what kind of heroes NASCAR drivers have become."

"As a rule, I don't get that close to the drivers just because of things like this," the son of NASCAR's founder said. "But some of them just jump out and grab you. Dale was one of those."

About 100 Earnhardt fans gathered outside the church, many of them wearing jackets and hats bearing his signature or No. 3. They ignored the rain, hoping to get a look at Earnhardt relatives, drivers and officials.

Truck driver Scott Poole and three friends made a 7½-hour trip from Hagerstown, Md.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, just to be part of the memory," he said.

Thousands of Earnhardt fans have attended memorial services at racetracks and other facilities since Sunday.

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.


Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press