Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Tristate race fans still in shock

Earnhardt's legion buy up No. 3 memorabilia

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Daniel Smith and Nicole Sykes joined a candlelight vigil for Dale Earnhardt at the World Peace Bell in Newport.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        NASCAR drivers work in fireproof suits and protective helmets. They speed around asphalt racetracks at 200 mph in bright, shiny cars that sound like rockets.

        While they might appear to be the most insulated and removed of all professional athletes, NASCAR drivers, in reality, are the most accessible. They're human. They're approachable. They'll sign their names to fans' caps, collectible cards or body parts, usually for free.

        And that's why scenes such as the long line Monday morning at the NASCAR Thunder store at Kenwood Towne Centre — repeated all over the racing world — was more of a wake for a loved one than an exercise in commerce.

        Dale Earnhardt, racing's biggest star and most colorful personality, died Sunday when his black No. 3 Chevrolet hit the wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Long lines formed at the NASCAR Thunder store.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        There has been a death in the family.

        “I didn't sleep last night, but it really hit me this morning,” Karen Terry said.

        The 57-year-old Maineville woman stood in line for more than a hour to pay for a Dale Earnhardt backpack, bumper stickers, mouse pad and miniature metal car.

        Mrs. Terry and her husband, Don, watched the race on TV.

        “He's taking it pretty hard,” she said. So was she. The longer she talked about Mr. Earnhardt, the closer Mrs. Terry moved to tears until she couldn't hold them back.

        “It's like Little E was saying,” she said of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second in the race and rode in the ambulance with his father, “they'll go on. That's what he would have wanted.”

Earnhardt poster at the NASCAR Thunder store.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Earnhardt merchandise is NASCAR's top seller. At NASCAR Thunder, where two dozen people were waiting when staff arrived at 8:30 a.m. — the store didn't open until 10 — all things Dale Earnhardt were sold out by noon. Then fans turned to Dale Jr. gear.

        Steve Dupree came to NASCAR Thunder to add to the Earnhardt Sr. collection he keeps in his Norwood home.

        “I've followed him for many years,” Mr. Dupree said. “I'm sad. I just can't believe he's gone.”

        It was a similar scene in Florence. At 7 a.m., a dozen fans waited outside Tom Gill Motorsports Plus.

        “When I opened at 10, there were 38 people in front,” store manager Jeff Pierce said.

Fans bought out the $279 leather jackets. One of Dale Jr.'s was left.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Within two hours, the store was almost sold out of Earnhardt memorabilia and clothing. On a wall behind the counter hung an autographed Earnhardt/Chevrolet poster going for $500.

        “We were hoping we'd see him drive in a Winston Cup race at Kentucky Speedway in a couple of years,” Mr. Pierce said.

        Fans throughout the country mourned the loss of a loved one. They traveled to the home of the Earnhardt racing team in Mooresville, N.C., and a memorial of flowers, balloons, candles and hand-written messages grew at a fence.

        Reminders of Mr. Earnhardt's death were evident throughout the Tristate.

        At Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World at Forest Fair Mall, Forest Park, flags were flown Monday at half-staff. Bass Pro had sponsored one of Mr. Earnhardt's cars since 1998.

        “He was a good friend and fellow outdoorsman,” said Larry Whiteley, the company's manager of corporate public relations.

Buck Fordyce, III, of Fayetteville, Ohio, is overcome during the candlelight ceremony Tuesday night.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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        Mr. Earnhardt's life and death were topics of conversation Monday afternoon on Bill Cunningham's talk show on WLW-AM. Bill “Seg” Dennison, the host of the station's Sunday night auto racing show, took calls from listeners.

        “Shock, disbelief” was how Mr. Dennison characterized fans' moods. “It's like if golf had lost Tiger Woods. We equated it to how people felt when John Lennon died.”

        Mr. Earnhardt, 49, was at the wheel as NASCAR grew from a regional attraction in the South to one of the nation's most popular sports.

        An estimated 200 fans gathered at a candlelight vigil in Mr. Earnhardt's honor at 7 p.m. Monday at the World Peace Bell in Newport.

        A replica of his black No. 3 Daytona car was scheduled to be in the Tristate this weekend as part of a promotion by AAA Cincinnati and Kentucky Speedway. The event has been canceled.

        Gene Teegarden wore his black “Intimidator” T-shirt and Mr. Goodwrench No. 3 cap Monday. The 30-year-old Newport man is the nephew of Billy Teegarden, a well-known stock car driver on Greater Cincinnati tracks in the 1960s and 1970s.

        “One of the main reasons I watched NASCAR races on TV was because of Dale Earnhardt,” he said. “I don't think I'll watch as much racing now that he's gone. It won't be the same. I think that's going to be true for a lot of fans.”

        But on Monday, all that was left of the man were memories — and mementoes. The Kenwood NASCAR store was filled with fans looking for a piece of Mr. Earnhardt — children out of school and men off work because of the Presidents Day holiday, pregnant women, retired men.

        “His aggressive style, the way he dealt with his fans” — that's how Mr. Earnhardt will be remembered, said Greg Rose, 33, of Amelia. He spent almost 90 minutes standing in line at NASCAR Thunder with his brother and nephew to buy a poster and other collectables.

        “He was the Michael Jordan of NASCAR.”

        Enquirer reporter Terry Flynn contributed to this article.

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