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Emotions flow from Earnhardt memorial

At the church and across the nation, friends, family and fans share their grief.

[AP photo]
Teresa Earnhardt, wife of the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, is escorted by a North Carolina Highway patrolman as she leaves a memorial service for her husband, held Thursday at Calvary Church in Charlotte, N.C..

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Darrell Waltrip leaned against the adobe-colored wall, his head bowed and eyes staring blankly at the carpeted floor.

A family friend spotted the three-time Winston Cup champion through the crowd of mourners packed in the dimly lit hallway at Calvary Church on Thursday afternoon.

Bill France Jr., son of NASCAR's founder, stopped, turned and gave Waltrip a fatherly hug.

"It's a difficult day," former driver Buddy Baker said, "for all of us."

Dale Earnhardt, 49 years old when he died in a last-lap crash during the Daytona 500 on Sunday, was remembered in a 20-minute memorial service attended by hundreds of those he competed against and worked alongside during his career.

The seven-time Winston Cup champion was buried after a private ceremony the day before.

"He was one of the very special people," 1983 Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison said. "He was a really great driver but also was just a really special person."

The nationally televised service concluded with Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, standing at the pulpit in a black dress. Surrounded by elaborate flower arrangements, some in the shape of a No. 3, she blew a kiss and tried to talk on behalf of the family.

"Thank you ... thank you," she said, breathless and teary-eyed before walking off the stage and starting the procession out.

Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Ken Schrader, Jeff and Ward Burton, Mark Martin, Hut Stricklin, Ricky Craven, Rick Mast, Steve Park, Michael Waltrip, Brett Bodine, Dave Marcis, Bobby and Terry Labonte, Robby Gordon, Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart were among the Winston Cup drivers in the congregation.

"When Teresa got up at the end of the ceremony, she was very classy and very Teresa-like with the way she blew everybody a kiss and said, "Thank you,' " Bodine said. "She didn't have to get up there and say a bunch of words. That's all she had to say. And we knew exactly what she meant."

The most notable driver in attendance was Sterling Marlin.

It was his slight nudge to Earnhardt's back bumper that unintentionally set off the crash that killed Earnhardt. Marlin received death threats in the days that followed.

The dozens of current and former drivers in attendance spoke volumes about the influence and respect Earnhardt gained from his competitors. Drivers typically shy away from funerals. "He was just a great competitor and a great friend of everybody in racing," said Junior Johnson, who drove against Earnhardt's father, Ralph. "He set a standard that hasn't been set in this sport before. In doing so, he proved to people that you can take very little and do a lot with it."

NASCAR president Mike Helton, Richard Petty, Humpy Wheeler, Bruton Smith, Jim France, Brian France, Donnie Allison, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn also attended.

The service began as the Earnhardt family, led by Teresa and youngest daughter Taylor, 12, on either side of a North Carolina State Trooper, made their way through the congregation before settling in front of the stage.

A box of tissues was placed in every pew.

Randy Owen, a country musician and friend of the family, began the ceremony with a song.

"Goodbye, goodbye 'til I see you again, goodbye," he sang, "I'll love and I'll miss you."

Motor Racing Outreach chaplain Dale Beaver eulogized Earnhardt with a story about his first meeting with the driver. Beaver needed the driver's signature on a permission slip so Taylor could attend a camping trip in the Pocono Mountains. Earnhardt was reluctant at first.

"I walked in there expecting him to be eating a bear and have me for dessert," Beaver said. "But I walked out getting a lesson in parenthood. He said, "They grow up fast and you need to spend as much time as you can with them.' "

Fans hoping to get a glimpse of the "Celebration of Life" ceremony were kept well away from the 6,000-seat building by police and security guards.

Dressed in their black, red and white Earnhardt jackets and hats, a few milled around outside despite the chilly drizzle that had set in overnight.

In their absence, some sent flowers with cards attached that read anything from "We will continue to fly our No. 3 flag forever," to "Though I never met you, I considered you a friend."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, Wood Brothers Racing, and Roger and Jennifer Penske sent flowers.

"He'll be the top person in the sport, I think, from now on," Johnson said. "I just don't think anybody is going to surpass him."

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