Monday, February 19, 2001

Tristate race fans mourn Earnhardt




By William A. Weathers
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “He seemed invincible. You wouldn't think it would be him.” A devastated Jean Lawrence was talking about Dale Earnhardt hours after his death during the last lap of Sunday's Daytona 500.

        The 55-year-old Eastgate woman's phone had been ringing off the hook Sunday evening. Family and friends, racing fans all, were equally distraught over the longtime NASCAR star's death after hitting the wall at Daytona.

        Mr. Earnhardt, the leader among active Winston Cup drivers with 76 career victories, had hordes of fans in the Tristate.

        While the possibility of a crash is part of the attraction of the sport, racing fans never like to see anyone seriously injured, Mrs. Lawrence said.

        But the danger is always there.

        “It's the chance they take every time they get in a car,” Mrs. Lawrence said.

        Sports reporter Bill Dennison, who hosts a Sunday evening NASCAR program on WLW radio, was equally disheartened by Mr. Earnhardt's death.

        “It's just devastating to the entire sport,” Mr. Dennison said. “The greatest driver ever has gone. I'm just numb. The sport will be numb for a long, long time.”

        Still, he hopes Mr. Earnhardt's last racing memory was a good one: “Hopefully, the last thing he saw was his lastest hire winning and his son finishing second.”

        Mark Cassis, vice president of the Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, said Dale Earnhardt died trying to help his son, fellow driver Dale Jr.

        “It's terribly ironic that Dale was in third place trying to make sure his son won (when the fatal crash occurred),” Mr. Cassis said.

        “It's a tough sport, but NASCAR will keep going,” the Kentucky Speedway official said. “It was certainly a very, very difficult day.”

        In constructing the Kentucky Speedway, “competitive safety was always the No. 1 factor,” Mr. Cassis said. And in the future, “whatever NASCAR asks us to do (safety-wise), we'll do.”

        Kevin Lynch, 43, who is visiting the Tristate from Orlando, Fla., couldn't believe the news until it flashed across ESPN at Tickets Sports Cafe in Covington Sunday.

        “He's one of the greatest champions of racing ever. To me it's like John Lennon dying,” Mr. Lynch said.

        He was playing pool with Bret Dlugosz, 29, when they heard of Mr. Earnhardt's death. Both men are training to be managers of Jillian's entertainment complex, which has a location in Covington.

        “I can't believe it,” Mr. Dlugosz said. “I have goosebumps. He is NASCAR. When you think of NASCAR, you think of Earnhardt.”

        Back in Eastgate, Mrs. Lawrence took solace in only one thing:

        Dale Earnhardt died “doing what he loved to do.”

        Jennifer Mrozowski of the Enquirer contributed to this report.

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