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Fans drawn to beach memorial

Some 2,000 gather near Gandy Bridge to share memories, grief.

By JOHN SCHWARB

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Viewed from afar, the crowd gathered on the beach near the Gandy Bridge mirrored a scene from the infield of any NASCAR race.

photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Dale Earnhardt fans gather in St. Petersburg around a 1983 Grand Prix painted to look like one of his '80s cars.
Truck beds held people and coolers. Music blared. And flapping in the breeze were countless DALE EARNHARDT 3 flags.

This was a time for those gathered to mourn and remember their favorite driver. Their hero.

A little more than 24 hours after Earnhardt's death, a gathering started by a die-hard fan of the "Intimidator" turned into a full-fledged memorial Monday with about 2,000 clad in shirts and hats commemorating the man.

"I wanted to do something for my driver," said Andy Kinworthy, 37, of St. Petersburg, an Earnhardt fanatic with the goods to prove it. "This was way more than I could have ever expected."

Sunday night, Kinworthy showed up at WTVT-Ch. 13 with plans for a rememberance. Monday on the beach, he spread two dozen framed photos of the driver around his prized possession, a 1983 Pontiac Grand Prix painted in blue and yellow with Wrangler decals to match Earnhardt's early NASCAR automobile.

Camera-bearing fans and television crews surrounded the makeshift memorial, and when Amazing Grace played from a country music radio station's truck just past 6 p.m., emotions poured out.

Kinworthy took to a knee in grief, crying along with most of his fellow Earnhardt fans.

"I think it's great that they're holding him up," said Ed Chapman, 47, of Tampa, shortly after crying with a beer and a flag. "It's not very often a grown man cries, but when he loses a true hero like he did today ... it's just devastating, man."

Moments of silence also were held, each with fans raising three fingers. There were scattered "long live Dale" and "rest in peace". There also were cheers -- including roars when Kinworthy revved his Grand Prix -- but some fans were content to simply hold a candle and observe.

"It's still hard to believe," said one of the older people in attendance, Lois Berryman of Riverview. She declined to give her age but said, "I would have seen all his races and then some."

Berryman said she did not know whether she could watch another NASCAR race, a sentiment shared by a number of Earnhardt fans.

Some loudly demanded that Earnhardt's famous number be retired, and others insisted his legacy and ride be passed to son Dale Jr.

As darkness fell, cars continued to line the beach, over a half-mile from Kinworthy's memorial. One couple rode their bicycles from 27th Avenue N, drawn by the spectacle.

At least one quick-thinking merchant made money from the mourners, selling car window decals for $10 and $20 declaring Earnhardt "gone but not forgotten."

"They're selling like hotcakes," said Tom Shirk of Brandon. "People aren't really saying anything, they're just buying them.

"They're just happy someone's here with them, I guess."

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