By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001
As staggering as the death of Dale Earnhardt was last weekend, the huge outpouring of support across the nation has been equally compelling.
The emotion could be felt in somber vigils, and No. 3's tremendous following could be quantified in the sheer volume of Earnhardt memorabilia online -- 110,000 items at eBay.com by Thursday.
Hoping to mobilize that huge fan base to help solidify the driver's place in history, one tribute site was launched within 36 hours of Sunday's accident in Daytona Beach.
Earnhardt500.com was registered Monday morning and launched early Tuesday, with a goal as aggressive as the driver it seeks to eternalize: rename the Daytona 500 in his honor.
"Honestly, I'm shooting for a million names," said Bobby Fallas of Bellmore, N.Y., who got the idea for an online signature drive at a Daytona restaurant after the race. "I'm not going to stop until I get it. There were 200,000 fans at Daytona on Sunday, so that's not a lot of people. NASCAR has a more emotional following than baseball, football, basketball. This is bigger than Elvis, bigger than Mickey Mantle."
The site was launched through a Palm Beach Web design company called CitraCom Internet, and in a refreshing departure from a sport so entrenched in its sponsors, Fallas told the company not to take advertising.
"This is the first Web site I've ever had where I was specifically instructed not to accept advertising," CitraCom's Richard Ficarelli said. "They're doing this strictly as fans trying to get something to remember him by."
The site also has links to 50 Earnhardt fan pages, and that network of friends helped the site draw 11,156 names in its first 28 hours of operation. Fans have the option to vote on the renaming, but 98 percent of the early responses were in favor.
The only real question seems to be which Earnhardt petition to sign. Earnhardt is the focus of the three largest petitions at petitiononline.com, a site that allows groups to collect names for causes ranging from keeping Napster alive to "broad public funding for fetal and embryonic stem cell research."
The largest petition, with more than 108,000 signatures Thursday, asks for Earnhardt's No. 3 to be retired by NASCAR. "Let the world forever remember the Number Three as Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt as Number Three," reads a letter that eventually will go to NASCAR president Mike Helton. A second, nearly identical petition has more than 7,000 signatures, and a third drive asks that The Winston, an annual all-star race in Charlotte, be renamed in Earnhardt's honor.
A poll at NASCAR.com asked fans what the most fitting tribute would be at Sunday's race in Rockingham: of 59,000-plus responses, 2 percent chose a vacant pit box or garage stall, 8 percent chose a yearlong Earnhardt decal on all cars, 29 percent said to retire his No. 3, and the remaining 59 percent said "all of the above."
Regardless of how he is honored this season and beyond, it's clear that Earnhardt won't be forgotten.
TID-BYTES: It just goes to show you don't have to know how to spell to make money off someone else's death: a search for "Earnhart" yields more than 2,700 items at eBay.com. ... One auction starting at $350 offered messages for Earnhardt to be flown by plane over this weekend's Winston Cup race in Rockingham. ... Among the more obscure Earnhardt items: an autographed black-and-red Gibson Les Paul guitar with Earnhardt's portrait on the front sold for $4,203. A bumper that fell off Earnhardt's Chevy in 1997 went for $2,550.
-- If you have a question or comment about the Internet or a site to suggest, send an e-mail to staff writer Greg Auman at email@example.com.