They came in buses. They came in droves.
They came to say goodbye.
Close to 5,000 fans from all over Georgia skipped work and school to be part of the Dale Earnhardt memorial service outside Atlanta Motor Speedway on Tuesday afternoon.
They stood in the gray drizzle, weeping and raising three fingers aloft as the preachers preached and the balladeers sang. They wore Chevy hats and Ford hats and Earnhardt hats and Gordon hats. They wore Goodwrench jackets and Elliott jackets and DW T-shirts and Jarrett sweatshirts.
They brought their colors. They brought their children. They brought their dogs. They brought flowers, balloons, poems, cards and cameras.
But most of all they brought their grief and their tears and their fears that racing never will be the same without the black No. 3 Chevrolet burning up the asphalt.
"Sunday's will never be the same," read one poster leaning against the No. 3 show car.
Eddie Buford, a 6-foot-4 bull of a man who until two years ago lived in Earnhardt's hometown of Kannapolis, N.C., cried behind his mirrored glasses as he spoke. He and Judy Duncan stopped by AMS on their way home to Covington, Ga., from Daytona Beach, Fla., where they witnessed the NASCAR tragedy first-hand.
"It's kind of hard for me to talk," Buford said. "For 20 years he's been a member of the family, and every Saturday and Sunday he came over. ... It's real tough."
The Studle clan of Henry County arrived in their bus that's a shrine to the Earnhardts. The passenger side is painted black with Dale's familiar 3. The driver side honors the Budweiser 8 of Dale Jr.
Susan Studle painted over the Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott colors when she bought the bus in August.
"I'm never going to paint over my bus again," she said. "We'll keep adding more in his memory."
Such is the passion that Earnhardt stoked in the NASCAR legions.
After the prayers and the praise, the voice of Earnhardt himself spoke to his fans in between the verses from Tim McGraw's Please Remember Me and Garth Brooks' The Dance.
"Do you want to race, or don't you want to race?" Earnhardt asked. "I want to race."
Every phrase drew cheers and tears: "Amen ... Bring it on home, champ ... You are the man."
Carol Pike of LaGrange sobbed incessantly while her husband, Harell, comforted her. Before Sunday's race, Carol had an eerie feeling that still haunts her.
"Dale's going to have a wreck," she told her husband. "I have this knot in the pit of my stomach."
"I don't know if I'm even going to be able to watch now," said Pike, who fell in love with racing because of Earnhardt's unflinching style. "He won't ever be replaced. He was Winston Cup racing."
Eddie Barton, the Baptist preacher who presided over Tuesday's memorial, says he believes Earnhardt wouldn't want his fans to get lost in their grief.
"Mourn for me a little while," Barton said, "but be at Rockingham on Sunday."
Twenty minutes after the service while many fans lingered around the show car draped in flowers and condolences, a familiar whine began on the far side of the Petty Grandstand.
It was the roar of a Chevy. Tim Fedewa was back on the track, followed by Kevin Harvick in the Busch Series car owned by Dale Earnhardt.
The dance goes on.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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