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Fans pay homage to Earnhardt during fest

At Country in the Park, stock cars were displayed, and fans paused for a memorial service for No. 3.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001


PINELLAS PARK -- Dale Earnhardt died a month ago today, but the loss is still fresh for his fans. It still hurts, and they still can't quite believe it.

Hundreds of them paid tribute to him Saturday at the 11th annual Country in the Park, this town's biggest celebration of the year.

One of Earnhardt's stock cars, its engine roaring, pulled onto the grass in front of the band shell north of Pinellas Park City Hall. "The Intimidator's" fans swayed to country music and held up three fingers in honor of their hero, No. 3.

"Dale made his way into millions of hearts every time he crawled behind the wheel of a race car," City Clerk Kathy Witherington told the crowd. "He died doing what he loved most."

A lifelong NASCAR fan, Witherington was watching the Daytona 500 on television Feb. 18 when Earnhardt crashed in the last turn of the last lap.

The car in Pinellas Park was the one Earnhardt drove in the 1998 Winston Select in Charlotte, N.C. Behind the wheel was Tim Rogers, a driver for Earnhardt's team, Richard Childress Racing. He thanked Earnhardt's fans for their letters, cards and e-mails.

Bagpipes played Amazing Grace. A moment of silence followed. Fans held aloft framed portraits of their idol.

Afterward, they milled around the eight stock cars in the park. Two of Earnhardt's cars will be on display from noon to 5 p.m. today at Pinellas ParkSide mall.

The rest of the day was devoted to country music and fun. Children wearing face paint did sand art as their grandparents rested under tents.

Service clubs sold ice cream bars, funnel cakes and fresh-squeezed lemonade. Doug Stone played his hits.

A line formed for the merry-go-round.

NASCAR fan Don Terrell of Gulfport checked out the gleaming cars, quietly shaking his head.

"He was so exciting. He added so much juice to the race," Terrell said. "Earnhardt was the man."

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