- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2001

Michael Bailey got in his Ford F-250 diesel pickup truck and left his St. Mary's County, Md., farm at 4 a.m. yesterday morning to join hundreds of others driving on the Capital Beltway.

But the 38-year-old NASCAR fan wasn't going to work. He was joining fellow race-car fans paying tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt with a memorial lap around a different kind of track.

Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, died Feb. 18 in the Daytona 500 when he crashed head-on into a wall at turn four of the speedway on the final lap of the race.

"It's giving back a little of what he gave," Mr. Bailey said at the Greenbelt Metro station, where he and other fans assembled after driving the 62-mile loop in a 2 and 1/2-hour processional honoring the NASCAR superstar known as "The Intimidator."

About 20 cars were originally expected to participate, but more than 300 cars at one time or another joined the line of cars that slowly crept along the outer loop of the Beltway as a steady, chilly rain fell. The cars rarely got above 25 mph.

The lap's organizer, Elkridge truck driver Ronald Laizear Jr., was not on hand because of a family emergency. The procession began at 8:30 a.m., an hour earlier than expected.

"He was a part of our family. We felt like we've lost someone dear to us," Julie Mixell of Gaithersburg, Md., said of Earnhardt's sudden death..

Mrs. Mixell, 38, and her husband, Rob, showed their love for Earnhardt as they drove a 1995 Chevrolet Monte Carlo decorated with "3" stickers Earnhardt's car number and hats on the rear dashboard, all with Earnhardt's signature and number emblazoned on them.

"It's been a hard week," said Mrs. Mixell, who wore "3" earrings and a black jacket with Earnhardt's name on it.

The Mixells were operating on only a few hours of sleep because they got back into the area at 2:30 a.m. Sunday after spending the weekend in Charlotte attending memorial ceremonies for their hero.

Jim Todd of Dumfries, Va., was at the fateful race where Earnhardt died. Earnhardt was helping Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale Jr., win and come in second in the sport's flagship race.

"He'd be going up the left lane and speeding up the procession," Mr. Todd said as he drove his 2000 Chrysler PT Cruiser in the caravan, following more than a hundred cars, most decorated with words paying respect to Earnhardt.

"Iron Head," read Mr. Todd's shoe-polish sign, referring to Earnhardt's first nickname.

"God Speed # 3," "This Lap is 4-U Dale," and the ubiquitous "We'll Miss You," were some other signs on cars and even on sheets draped over the bridges and overpasses along the Beltway.

One vehicle really stood out a van painted black and decorated to look just like Earnhardt's car, complete with the dozens of stickers from the car's sponsors.

Dozens of fans taking part in the procession stopped on the side of the road to film some of their last memories of Earnhardt. Both Maryland and Virginia state police escorted the line, which seemed to grow after passing another exit, and neither agency reported any problems.

The Washington Times first reported Friday that a memorial lap was planned, and hundreds of fans and media outlets called asking how to get involved.

The lap seemed to get as much attention as the race later in the afternoon the Dura Lube 400 in Rockingham, N.C. garnered, with Amy Morris of WTOP Radio (1500 AM) broadcasting a report every half-hour on the progress of the journey, giving a play by play of where she was in the caravan.

Mr. Todd, 42, has been watching NASCAR races for the last two decades, and he has attended at least 15 races.

The outpouring of support for Earnhardt shouldn't be that surprising , he said, because the drivers are so down to earth and accessible.

In "other professional sports … you can't get up close to people unless you pay for an autograph," Mr. Todd said, adding that no matter whether people loved or hated Earnhardt's driving, they always respected the man.

Earnhardt was a person for everyone, Mr. Bailey said, which is one of the reasons so many people are shedding tears for him, even though they may never have personally known him.

"He ran with what he had," Mr. Bailey said, adding Earnhardt had a connection with "grass roots, middle America," because he had to scrape and struggle to accomplish what he did.

In taking part in the memorial lap, fans were getting closure and paying their final respects to a man they felt close to a man who helped turned NASCAR into the fastest-growing sport in America and a man who can never be replaced, Mr. Bailey said.

"It helps by getting people together," Mr. Bailey said, so they can grieve.

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