Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Even toughest race fans overcome

        DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ted Abbott apologized for his tears, but he could not stop them. He'd dab at his eyes and gather his thoughts, but the words kept coming out watery.

        “It's a sad day,” Abbott said. “And I'm not doing too good.”

        This was late Sunday night, and we were intruding. To understand the impact of Dale Earnhardt's death, Atlanta columnist Steve Hummer suggested we seek out some of his extended family. We visited the vast recreational vehicle lot adjoining Daytona International Speedway, and looked for RV's with a light on and an Earnhardt flag flying.

        Ted Abbott and his wife, Marilyn, on a holiday from their excavation business in Sarasota, Fla., were flying two Earnhardt flags Sunday night. Their living area was decorated with blankets bearing Earnhardt's trademark No.3. He was wearing a black Earnhardt T-shirt and clutching a Yorkshire Terrier close for comfort.

        “He knows something's wrong,” Abbott said, petting his dog, Topper.

        Those who believe auto racing fans are drawn to the sport by its danger should have been in Daytona Sunday evening. Dale Earnhardt was the toughest character on the stock car circuit — known as “The Intimidator” for his ruthless style of racing — but his sudden death shook some fans, angered others and muted the typical Daytona postrace debauchery.

        “Everybody is like they're in a daze,” Marilyn Abbott said.

        “What makes me mad,” said Chuck Mack,

        “is every time somebody's killed it's because they have hit a wall. NASCAR doesn't want to do anything about softer walls.”

        Dale Earnhardt used to say that NASCAR would rather scrape him off a wall than improve them, but his death should serve to focus attention on reform: specifically, softer walls and more secure headgear (such as the HANS device now in use by some drivers to reduce the risk of head trauma). Nine NASCAR drivers have died in the last decade — three of them at Daytona — but Earnhardt was the first whose passing transcended the sports page.

        “I became a NASCAR fan because I became a Dale Earnhardt fan,” Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman said Sunday. “Dale was someone I was proud to have my son look up to.”

        Like the irascible Indy legend, A.J. Foyt, Earnhardt was more spit than polish, and a particular hero of the working class. He was a high school dropout who was driven to win his early races in order to repay the loans he took out to keep tinkering with his cars.

        “He worked on cars, he knew cars,” said Mack, a sheet-metal worker from Al ton, Mich. “A guy like Jeff Gordon, he's a great driver, but he's never worked a day in his life. You put Dale Earnhardt in a garage with a pile of parts, he could build a car.”

        Earnhardt ultimately became NASCAR's all-time leading money-winner, but he retained a blue-collar sensibility and a remarkable connection with his public.

        One of the things that makes stock-car racing so appealing to its sponsors is the level of loyalty among its fans. Simply because Dale Earnhardt wore a Coca-Cola emblem, his constituents were less likely to drink Pepsi products. Many of the sponsorship millions that have been invested in NASCAR in recent years are a reflection of Earnhardt's personal popularity.

        “He was just a tough guy, just a very tough guy,” Ted Abbott said. “They called him "The Intimidator.' He fit that real well.”

        Abbott apologized for not being tougher, and continued to cry.

        E-mail tsullivan@enquirer.com. Past columns at www.enquirer.com/columns/sullivan.

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