Friday, February 23, 2001

Local NASCAR fans, reeling from driver Dale Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500 Sunday, are finding ways to put personal touches on tributes to “The Intimidator.”

A local truck driver is organizing a convoy of about 20 cars to drive a lap around the 62-mile Capital Beltway on Sunday to commemorate the seven-time NASCAR champion.

Ronald Laizear Jr., 35, of Elkridge, Md., credits his girlfriend with the idea. He said he had placed signs in his front yard memorializing Earnhardt but was struggling to think of a more original way to honor him.

“He gave so many laps to us, it’s only fair that we give one last lap to him,” said Mr. Laizear.

Maryland State Police say that as long as the mourners don’t drive like Earnhardt did, there won’t be a problem.

“If people want to follow each other and obey the speed limit and the traffic laws, that’s OK with us,” said state police spokesman Maj. Greg Shipley.

Loosely knit groups of fans have talked of arranging vigils in Westminster and Hagerstown, Md., while a group of local funeral homes are inviting fans to come sign a Dale Earnhardt memorial book.

Pat Kehr, 53, owner of a property management company in York, Pa., has been a fan of Earnhardt’s since 1979. She said she was attracted originally to the brash young racer’s charisma and ability. Mrs. Kehr and her husband, Marvin, dedicated a room in their home to displaying memorabilia of the racing icon.

“It’s like losing a member of your family,” Mrs. Kehr said of the famed racer’s death.

Last year, she and her husband bought a Signature Series Monte Carlo 2000 from Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet in Newton, N.C. The car, one of 25 produced each year, is emblazoned with the driver’s No. 3 and decals commemorating his Winston Cup championship years.

Weather permitting, she will take the Earnhardt car to a memorial in York tomorrow.

Mrs. Kehr said after the race she received about 50 condolence calls from friends expressing sympathy.

Now, one piece of Mrs. Kehr’s memorabilia collection has taken on new significance. Last year, she and her husband met Earnhardt in North Carolina and asked if he would autograph five items including her shoulder. He complied and Mrs. Kehr immediately drove nine hours back to York, and had the autograph tattooed on.

She now says she would “give up anything to be able to see him race again.”

For some people, the death of the racing legend has created an overwhelming demand for merchandise bearing his name.

Mike Minnick, owner of It’s Just Racing, a racing collectibles shop in Damascus, said he’s sold out of “everything Earnhardt,” from pins to hats to flags to T-shirts to die-cast model cars.

Mr. Minnick, 44, was at the Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, and he said the accident looked no worse than any other.

His shop was closed Monday, but on Tuesday, Mr. Minnick said, there was a line around the block before he opened the store.

But in the long term, he wonders about the impact of Earnhardt’s death on his store.

“What’s it going to do to my business,” Mr. Minnick confessed to thinking, adding that Dale Earnhardt was a third of it.

But life does go on, and so does auto racing. Mr. Laizear said he plans to have his memorial lap no later than 9:30 a.m. Sunday so participants can be home in time to see Sunday’s Dura-Lube 400 NASCAR race in Rockingham, N.C.

Mr. Minnick said he considered closing the store on the anniversary of Earnhardt’s death next year, but he has found out already that people want to share their feelings about what happened.

As for Mrs. Kehr, she says racing will never be the same.

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