CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Calvary Church can accommodate 5,800 people, but the simple truth is no venue would have been large enough to hold everyone who wanted to be there Thursday. The stock-car racing community descended on the opulent south ...
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Calvary Church can accommodate 5,800 people, but the simple truth is no venue would have been large enough to hold everyone who wanted to be there Thursday.
The stock-car racing community descended on the opulent south Charlotte sanctuary to try to take another step in dealing with something that still seemed difficult to accept even though it had occurred four days earlier -- the death of Dale Earnhardt.
Against a gray backdrop sprinkled with snow, sleet, rain and wind, they gathered for a memorial service that featured 25 moving minutes of memories, songs and Bible quotations in a tribute to someone who died while pursuing what would have been a record eighth NASCAR Winston Cup title.
Earnhardt's family was accompanied by friends, competitors, business associates and NASCAR officials at the invitation-only service. Even with a large contingent of law enforcement officers on hand to try to protect the privacy of the mourners, fans gathered outside the church anyway, seeking a way to cope with their grief for the death of the man with the magnetic personality.
Inside, NASCAR chaplain Dale Beaver delivered a eulogy in which he recalled his first meeting with the man known as "The Intimidator." Beaver said he was apprehensive as he walked into Earnhardt's hauler at a race track, intent on getting Earnhardt to sign a parental permission form so his youngest daughter, Taylor Nicole Earnhardt, could join other NASCAR children on a camping trip.
What Beaver found surprised him. "I didn't come into the presence of a racing icon or an intimidating figure," he said. "I came into the presence of a dad."
Beaver, who also is a father, said he and Earnhardt swapped parenthood stories in what would be the first of his many meetings with the driver. It was a meeting, Beaver said, that could serve as a lesson for those in attendance at the memorial service.
"You and I will one day be ushered into the presence of a very intimidating force," he said. "There's a savior that will take you there. I wonder if you know him."
After Beaver spoke, Randy Owen, lead singer of the group Alabama and a close Earnhardt friend, sang, "Angels among us."
As the service approached, it was evident that a major event was about to take place in Charlotte. Police escorted a caravan of some 40 buses down Interstates 77 and 485 to the church. Most of the buses made the nearly two-hour drive south from Welcome, the home of Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt's employer for six of his seven championships. Another large contingent of buses made a 45-minute ride south from Mooresville, home of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the three Winston Cup teams fielded by the late champion.
Those who were not invited to the service found other ways to share in the spirit of the memorial service. One local newspaper even published a list Thursday morning of more than two dozen restaurants, bars and other businesses in the region that planned to carry live feeds of the nationwide television broadcast of the service.
The outpouring of grief wasn't limited to the Charlotte area, long know as the home of stock-car racing. Several Winston Cup tracks held memorial services of their own in the days following Sunday's fatal crash, and there were numerous reports of funeral homes across the Southeast and the rest of the United States allowing mourners to come in and record entries in memory books set up for Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, 49, was buried at an undisclosed location after a private funeral for family members and select friends Wednesday in Mooresville.
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