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Autos

Fans, drivers get close for charity

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 19, 2003

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Inc. donated the shell of a No. 8 Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the charity auction at Saturday's Winston Cup Preview.

The highest bidder?

Junior.

"I bought the nose," he said. "I don't know if I was supposed to, but I bid on the nose and bought it."

That'll be $1,300, please.

In its 14th year, the Winston Cup Preview attracts fans from across the country to Joel Lawrence Veterans Memorial Coliseum to get autographs from drivers, bid on memorabilia and shop for souvenirs. About 20,000 attended.

"The most diehard fans in the country are here," four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "They travel for long distances, endure the cold. At least this year it's a little easier that they don't have to sleep out on the sidewalk like they used to."

Each Winston Cup driver signs autographs for a two-hour session, with the day divided into four sessions. Previously, fans lined up the night before and camped out in wintry conditions to get the autographs of the most popular drivers. This year, wristbands were distributed on Friday.

The event benefits several charities, including the Winston Cup Racing Wives Auxiliary, Speedway Children's Charities and the Victory Junction Gang. In its first 13 years, more than $2.4-million was raised.

LIVE FROM NEW YORK ... : Reviews were mixed for Gordon's debut last weekend as host of Saturday Night Live. The consensus: Gordon handled his duties well, but the show was not terribly funny.

Still, Gordon had fun.

"I was able to do things I never thought I would do in front of a mirror, let alone on TV," said Gordon, who in the show's funniest skit donned a mullet wig and long sideburns, danced and did martial arts kicks while delivering his lines. "It's pretty neat when you put on a wig and some facial hair and a costume. It allows you to be somebody else for a change."

By the way, Gordon said the snake wrapped around his neck in the zoo keeper skit was a live boa constrictor.

"If a snake is cool it moves slower, so they know how to do those things with snakes for television," said Gordon, who owned a boa constrictor during his Busch Grand National days. "I guess it must not have moved much because everybody thought it was fake."

FAN ACCESS: NASCAR will announce this week its new policy concerning access to the garage area, hoping to alleviate the crush of people around drivers and crew members.

The sanctioning body will issue hot and cold passes, with only hot passes allowed in the garage when the track is hot. Drivers will not be allowed to sign autographs near the garage bay, but will sign at their haulers and a designated autograph table.

PRECEDENT SETTING?: Earnhardt Jr., who has raced at DEI since 1998 on a handshake agreement with his late father, hopes to sign a five-year contract that will put a cap on the number of off-track appearances he makes during the season at 40.

Junior would be the first to have such a stipulation in his contract, but likely would not be the last.

"I had to put a cap on it because there was no control. Nobody had control of the reigns," he said. "Racecar drivers can race on into their 50s and still be competitive. But it's the stuff off the track that drives you away from the sport. I don't want to get burned out before it's my time."

PIT STOPS: Former beer-company executive Sam Belnavis has joined Travis Carter to form BelCar Racing. The No. 54 Ford will be driven by Todd Bodine. ... Actor John Travolta is the grand marshal for the Daytona 500.

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