ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- In a way, the stack of Busch Light beer cases outside Doug and Glenda Hall's camper serves as a tribute to Dale Earnhardt.
You see, through most of their 16 years of marriage, Doug was a Miller Lite man. But when Anheuser-Busch Co. became a sponsor of the racing team Earnhardt owned, the couple just had to switch.
That was the kind of appeal Earnhardt had.
"He was my man," Glenda Hall said over the generator growl as she stood shivering on a patch of faux-grass carpet in the campgrounds across U.S. 1 from the North Carolina Speedway. "He's the only man my husband's ever let me have in my living room, bedroom and kitchen."
The couple have stockpiled eight cases of their favorite beer for this weekend. They will need it as they prepare for Sunday's Dura Lube 400, their first NASCAR race in years without "their man."
"I think that any Earnhardt fan that doesn't come, they're going to look like a bunch of cop-outs," said Mrs. Hall, a No. 3 earring flashing from each lobe. "We should be here to show our remorse and all to his family and to the legend of the sport that's fallen."
And so, less than a week after his death in a crash at Daytona, legions of fans in pain are making the pilgrimage to "The Rock," a track sunken in the pines of North Carolina's Sand Hills like a crippled flying saucer.
Across the road is a pup-tent bivouac festooned with Confederate flags and Earnhardt banners. Outside the main gate, a granite boulder inscribed with the names of Earnhardt and other Winston Cup champions is encircled by "3"-shaped flower arrangements, winged Teddy bears, black balloons and roses -- both real and chocolate.
Mary Kay Rowell wiped away tears as she walked from the makeshift memorial.
"Oh, I haven't cried in 10 years, and I cried two full days after this happened," the Dillon, S.C., woman said. "He was my boyfriend's driver -- and he was also my driver, too."
How do people decide whom to make "their driver"? For a primer, stop by the corner table at downtown Rockingham's Holiday Restaurant, where fans come to wash down pork barbecue with pitchers of sweet iced tea.
Bill McAnulty raced the "outlaw" dirt tracks in the 1950s and '60s. His favorite driver was erstwhile moonshine runner Junior Johnson, until Johnson made a fateful decision -- he switched to Fords.
"I couldn't pull for a Ford," McAnulty said, shaking his head in mock disgust. "I was raised in a Chevrolet family and I drove Chevrolets. I'm driving Nissans now, but when it comes to racing, it's got to be a Chevrolet."
"Why are you generally a Republican or a Democrat?" he asked. "Because you were born into it."
McAnulty found a new hero in Earnhardt. And after a lot of soul-searching, he has decided to pull for Dale Jr.
"He's got the right car, he's got the right name and he's driving essentially his dad's equipment. And he's a pretty doggone good race driver," McAnulty said. "As they say, the apple don't fall too far from the tree."
Across the table, Jim Murray announced almost apologetically that he is a Jeff Gordon man. But he said his love of the sport goes deeper than a number on a hood or an advertiser's decal on a roof.
He thumped his chest to describe how the roar of the passing cars affects him. There is poetry in the wind that rushes over him as the machines roar past. The residue of burning tire that coats the track is a thing of beauty to him.
"I still believe race fans are race fans, OK?" he says. "And because you lost Dale, this is going to take awhile. But they'll gravitate to other drivers, and they will stay race fans, because they love racing."
Around these parts, NASCAR is more than just a sport, said Kevin Parsons: "It's a way of life."
Like Dale Jr., Parsons followed a famous daddy into racing. Parsons' father was 1973 Winston Cup champion Benny Parsons. The younger Parsons raced for about four years "until I ran out of money." He now teaches math at the local community college.
He said he thinks that cycle is what has kept the sport -- and its stars -- humble.
"You know how it is in football and basketball," he said. "Guys, by the time they're 15 years old, people tell them how special they are, that the rules don't apply to them if they'll just put the ball in the hoop. Racing doesn't have that. No matter who you are, you have to start out racing for $500 purses.
"Sweat and tears on your own stuff. And when you do get there, I think you appreciate it a little more."
Despite the big tracks and the myriad endorsements, Parsons said NASCAR has still not been tainted by a major scandal and has retained much of the family flavor it started out with. The only Sundays it takes off between February and November are Easter and Mother's Day.
People loved Earnhardt because he was like a neighbor, a friend, even a family member.
Barbara Sears liked him because he reminded her so much of her late husband, "Big" John Sears, who raced at Rockingham when the speedway there was still only a dirt track.
His widow pulled out a dust-covered framed newspaper clipping showing off her husband's No. 10 Mercury -- the car he once won in after running the last 17 laps with only three wheels.
"Back then, they may have called him The Intimidator," she said with a laugh as she showed off a photo of him rubbing baby powder on his bumpers to cut the wind drag. "I could see a lot of my husband in Dale."
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