Originally created 02/20/01

Nation mourns racing legend



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A single flower lay Monday at the tunnel gate that leads into the spacious infield at the Daytona International Speedway.

Race fans could get no closer to the fourth-corner spot in the infield where racing icon Dale Earnhardt died a day earlier on the final lap of the Daytona 500. For many, the gate was close enough.

Flowers and candles were stacked waist-high at one of Earnhardt's souvenir trailers just beyond the fourth-turn wall - just a few feet from where the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion died - and the marquee across the street at Hooters simple read: "Godspeed, Dale Earnhardt."

Up and down historic Florida Highway A-1A, hotel signs that once promoted available rooms and job openings were changed to reflect more personal matters. "We Love You Dale," "3 Forever" and "Goodbye Old Friend" represented the mood of a town, a sport and a nation that still grappled for answers.

Racing has been rocked by tragedy before, and the very nature of the sport assures us it will happen again. But nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prepared the world for the announcement that came shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday:

"We've lost Dale Earnhardt," NASCAR president Mike Helton pressed through lips that were trembling with both pain and disbelief.

The day after Earnhardt died instantly of a broken neck and brain damage suffered in a head-on collision with the fourth-turn wall on the final lap - just a half-mile from the finish line - people with even the most casual interest in stock car racing were talking about Earnhardt.

"I don't follow NASCAR, but I know Dale Earnhardt and the black No. 3 car," said Heidi Hofmeister, 25, of Daytona Beach. "Everybody's sick over this. The whole town is in shock."

The waitresses at Hampton's Fried Chicken, a hot spot for local race fans near the race track, wore black "Intimidator" T-shirts Monday. The clock above the kitchen window featured pictures of Earnhardt and his famous Chevrolet. A model of his car rested on a shelf by the register.

Laura Frattelli, 22, of Orlando, sat on a bus stop bench in front of the speedway clutching a magazine with Earnhardt's face on the cover. She cried as lunchtime traffic passed in front of her.

"I will never go to another race," she said. "My heart's broken. Racing will never be the same."

Bill France Jr., the son of series founder Bill France, had trouble talking about the sport's most familiar driver during a Monday afternoon press conference. He said next Sunday's race at Rockingham, N.C., would go on as planned, but he admitted the healing process may take years.

"This is a tough period in NASCAR history," he said. "It's going to take time (to fill the void), if we ever fill it. Life has to go on. Somebody's going to come along. Curtis Turner was a hard-driving driver in his day. Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly - there were a lot of hard-driving drivers that were respected. They were the Dale Earnhardts of their era.

"Dale Jr. looks to me like he's got pretty good potential to follow his father's footsteps."

President George W. Bush called Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, late Sunday. By midnight, governors, chief executive officers and race teams were issuing statements.

There was a moment of silence during Sunday night's National Basketball Association game between the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks.

Several newspapers near the raceway reported record sales. The Daytona Beach News Journal printed 140,000 of Monday's edition. All copies were sold by 10 a.m., and an additional 90,000 copies were printed Monday afternoon. Race fans stood in 90-minute lines at the printing facility to buy the newspaper with the stark page one headline: Black Monday.

The Orlando Sentinel printed 30,000 extra editions Monday, and The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville sold 25,000 extra copies of its original Sunday night run.

Another company doing big business in the wake of Earnhardt's death was the Head And Neck Support (HANS) system in Atlanta. The company, founded by sports car driver Jim Downing and Dr. Robert Hubbard, builds head and neck restraint systems for racers. The device attaches the helmet to a shoulder harness to stabilize the head during a violent crash.

Fifty drivers ordered the safety device Monday, including Rusty Wallace, Buckshot Jones and NASCAR Busch Series champion Jeff Green.

"I've never seen anything like this," Downing said. "After seeing the wreck, it was just another last-lap wreck we've seen a hundred times. There wasn't anything unusual about it. I don't think any of us thought it was serious enough to kill somebody."

Seven drivers wore the HANS device during the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was not one of them.

"In a way, that couldn't have been avoided," Downing said. "Dale Earnhardt would never have worn the HANS device. He was from the old, rough, tough school. He didn't think about dying. He wasn't afraid. You thought the guy was Superman."

NASCAR officials offered no new information to their "work in progress" concerning safety issues. Helton said his organization would continue to study things like the HANS device, soft-wall technology and other measures that possibly could save a driver's life.

Dr. Steve Bohannon, a trauma specialist who worked on Earnhardt at the scene and at nearby Halifax Medical Center, said he didn't think the HANS device could have saved Earnhardt.

Downing said such an allegation was "nearly criminal."

"Massive wrecks are the nature of the game," Downing said. "Every now and then, it catches up with you. It doesn't have anything to do with whether it's your time or not. It's a matter of physics.

"We can confidently say in our minds, there would be nothing wrong with Dale if he had been wearing our device. We've never had a driver with a head or neck injury who's been wearing our device, and we've been in some pretty big wrecks since it came out in 1991."

Funeral arrangements weren't announced Monday. The family, through a statement, said the outpouring of support was "overwhelming." They also asked, in lieu of flowers, that donations be sent to the Carolina Foundation, a company that collects donations and distributes them to charitable causes.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net