Special Report: No. 3 forever

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Special Report:

She says she is Dale Earnhardt’s biggest fan, and it is difficult to dispute that claim upon meeting Susie Behler.

There is the black wooden sign that reads, “3 we miss u.” There is the “No. 1 Fan” T-shirt. There are the earrings worn in tribute to Earnhardt’s famous stock-car driver son, affectionally known as “Junior.”

But, above all, there is this: In order to meet the No. 1 fan, one must climb aboard a renovated school bus that is a moving — literally — testament to the hold Earnhardt still has on the racing world 2 years after his shocking death in a crash at the Daytona 500.

Inside the bus are Earnhardt curtains, Earnhardt stickers and Earnhardt pictures cut from magazines and pasted on the walls. The outside of the bus is painted black at the front and red at the rear, colors that represent the cars of Dales Sr. and Jr., respectively. The No. 3, Earnhardt’s number, adorns each side of the front. A No. 8 rides on the back, mimicking the Budweiser Chevrolet that Junior drives each Winston Cup weekend.

With admirable attention to detail, Mrs. Behler has placed faux sponsor decals on the outside of the bus. One can’t help but think that sponsor-conscious Dale Sr., as he’s so often referred to these days, would have had it no other way.

If Mrs. Behler doesn’t “eat [and] sleep Dale,” as another female fan at Pocono Raceway proudly proclaimed, well, she comes pretty darn close.

And she’s not alone.

When NASCAR’s Winston Cup racing spectacle rolls into a new town each week, the host track soon transforms into a red-and-black sea of trucks, RVs, tents and thousands of race fans, all part of what is arguably America’s fastest-growing sport.

When those camps settle in for the long race weekend, it becomes clear that though Dale Sr. is dead, he is not really gone — not by a long shot.

Earnhardt won seven Winston Cup championships in the 1980s and 1990s, tying him with Richard Petty for the most in NASCAR history. Ol’ Ironhead had only an eighth-grade education, but he worked hard, drove hard and won big, earning a record $41.5 million in prize money.

His style, his loyalty to his team and to his sponsors and his classic rags-to-riches rise won him the everlasting affection of racing fans.

“He deserves respect,” Vito La Neve says while waiting for the race at Pocono to begin. “He made money, and he knew what it was like to break his butt for a living.”

That respect is on proud display at NASCAR events.

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