There he stood, tougher than a $2 steak, neck by Rawlings, a good
50 hard years behind him, tears dripping off his beard.
J.W. Martin had driven eight hours for this--the late Dale
Earnhardt's 52nd birthday, the one day of the year when
worshipers of the NASCAR driver are allowed to enter his
70,000-square-foot Garage Mahal in Mooresville, N.C.--and now it
was just too damn much for him.
Martin was standing between a row of four cars that Earnhardt had
used to wax other drivers and the 1957 coral-pink street Chevy
that Earnhardt had lovingly waxed himself, and the ol' boy was
"People just don't understand what he meant," said a sniffling
Martin, who back home in Lebanon, Tenn., has Earnhardt
commemorative glasses and plates, blanket, wall decor, wet bar,
truck, car, boat and grandbaby's car seat. "Racin' just ain't
been the same without him."
On April 29 about 13,000 people like Martin made the pilgrimage
to Dale Earnhardt Inc. headquarters on Dale Earnhardt Highway 3
in the town known as Dalesville to see some of the pistons the
great man pumped, some of the hats he wore and some of the
trophies he held over those hats.
There were men with Dale Sr.'s face tattooed on their right
forearms and Dale Jr.'s on their left. There were women driving
$31,000 Dale Earnhardt signature Monte Carlos, one with the plate
DALESGR8. "See this pitcher?" said Elwood Jones of Rocky Mount,
Va., showing an 11-by-14 photograph from the 2001 Daytona 500.
"This was taken 20 minutes before Dale died. It's for sale, but I
ain't sellin' to nobody but a true Dale fan. And I can tell."
Like Elvis's, Earnhardt's legend has only grown in death. It's
been more than two years since he died in "the perfect crash," as
it's called, the grisly combination of speed and angle of impact
that killed him. "How long did I cry?" asked Jones. "Buddy, I
This was the second birthday open garage, and fans slept outside
the night before to be among the first in line. For what? For the
gift shop, of course, a place they can get into most every other
day of the year.
"Looks like you bought something," I said to Julie Weist, who
drove 1,100 miles, from Dows, Iowa, with her husband, Mark.
"Yep," she said, wiping away tears. "I'm gonna frame it."
"You're going to frame a T-shirt?"
"Not the shirt!" she corrected. "The bag!"
A man got on his back and scooted under the 1994 Lumina that
Earnhardt drove to clinch his seventh Winston Cup championship.
He wanted to take a few snaps. Hey, if a close-up of Dale's
drivetrain doesn't give you chill bumps, then you must not be
from one of the five states--Florida, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Texas and Virginia--that this year declared April 29 as
Dale Earnhardt Day.
You wouldn't understand why three Mooresville-area hotels offered
discount rates and shuttle-bus service to Earnhardt's muffler
mecca. Or why the crowd there got eerily quiet when The Dance, by
Garth Brooks, was played over the sound system. You probably
wouldn't drive 13 hours just to stand on the street where Dale
grew up--yeah, Sedan Street--the same place where his daddy died
of a heart attack while fixing a carburetor. (Hell, you probably
wouldn't fix your own carburetor, either.)
You wouldn't get why the minor league baseball team in Dale's
hometown of Kannapolis, N.C., is called the Intimidators. Nor why
people nearly cause traffic accidents pulling over to take
pictures of themselves in front of DALE EARNHARDT BLVD signs.
Three Nation still grieves. It holds three fingers to the sky at
the start of every NASCAR race. It goes silent in the third lap
of every race. It wears Earnhardt's trademark black jeans, black
T-shirt and black hat whether it's 103° or 3°. Forty percent of
NASCAR's souvenir sales are Earnhardt-related. A Navy sailor,
Robert Butcher, begged for and received permission to take his
reenlistment oath at the Earnhardt garage on this most holy day.
This obsession still amazes Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s 250 employees.
Still amazes the family too. "What's funny is that Dale [never
really wanted] us doing much for his birthday," says Dale's
50-year-old brother, Randy. The Intimidator was famous for
skipping birthdays altogether--his age was something of a
mystery. "All I know is, I started out younger than him," Randy
says, "and ended up passing him somewhere along the line."
If that's true, his adoring fans want you to know something: It's
the only damn time Dale Earnhardt liked gettin' passed.
If there was one moment that summed up the day, it was this: At
about noon there was a sudden hush in the garage showroom, and a
crowd gathered respectfully to peer down a hall, cameras to their
eyes. "What's going on?" I inquired.
A woman holding a video camera whispered emotionally, "They're
unloading some of Dale Jr.'s tools!"
The king is dead. Long live the king.
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Like Elvis's, Earnhardt's legend has only grown in death. "How
long did I cry? Buddy, I ain't stopped."