Fans mark 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s death

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DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Someone placed three small white angel figurines at the foot of the Dale Earnhardt statue that stands outside of Daytona International Speedway.

Near the statue was a lone yellow rose in a small glass vase, with a black ribbon tied around it. On the ribbon was written one word: “forever.” Members of the team Earnhardt once drove for, Richard Childress Racing, wore black No. 3 hats as they worked on cars in the garage area.

Subtly but surely, fans and NASCAR competitors remembered the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, which fell Friday.

“It’s just a sad day in racing,” said 62-year-old Nita Powell, an Earnhardt fan who came to Daytona from Sand Lake, Mich.

More tributes will come during Sunday’s Daytona 500.

The Fox television broadcast team will fall silent during lap No. 3, while fans are expected to hold up three fingers in tribute _ much as they did at every race in the immediate aftermath of Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

It will be the first time attending the Daytona 500 for Robert Baker, an Earnhardt fan from Canton, Ohio. For Baker, it just felt right to be there in person.

And despite the dour anniversary, he didn’t feel sad when he got to the racetrack. The sun was out, the people were friendly and he was getting ready for the race.

“I’ve always wanted to come down to the Daytona 500,” the 65-year-old said. “Being the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death, it’s really special, extra special for me.”

Fans still remember where they were on that day in 2001, and how they found out the shocking news that Earnhardt had been killed. The wreck hadn’t looked that violent _ and wasn’t Earnhardt invincible?

“You’re not going to hurt that guy,” said 52-year-old Greg Walton, an Earnhardt fan who lives near Santa Barbara, Calif. “He drove with a broke back.”

And he had walked away from so many wrecks that appeared so much worse.

“There were so many worse,” Walton said. “I can remember the time when he flipped, the car rolled, and he gets out of the car saying, ‘Hey, does it start back up?’”

A decade after Earnhardt’s death, his loyal fans take solace in the fact that his accident was the catalyst for a safety revolution in the sport.

“We’re still racing, and thankfully nobody’s been killed since his death,” said Jody Scheckel, an Earnhardt fan from Eustis, Fla. “Obviously, we were able to gain from his death, and take the knowledge from that and make the drivers safer. That’s the most important thing.”

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