- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2003

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.

The “3” flags fly high above the camp sites at Pocono, rivaling in number the Confederate flags that are standard issue at a NASCAR race. The day’s meal is cooked on grills that resemble Earnhardt’s familiar No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, and coolers full of cold Bud are similarly designed.

Earnhardt hats, shirts, jackets, bandanas and can holders are everywhere. New products, such as action figures or replicas of the No. 3 car, are never hard to find. At Pocono, only three drivers had merchandise trailers set up in the large infield: four-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, rising star Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt.

Many active drivers have trouble putting out merchandise or getting a sponsor from week to week. Not so Dale Sr., who has been missing from the track for nearly three full seasons but still debuted a new line of “Legacy” gear this season.

And fans snatch it up by the plastic bagfull.

From July 2001 — five months after his death — to June 2002, Earnhardt was the fourth-highest earning dead celebrity, surpassed only by Elvis Presley, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz and former Beatle John Lennon. According to Forbes magazine, the Earnhardt estate pulled in $20 million through licensing and royalty fees during that span.

When Earnhardt died in an ordinary-looking crash on Feb. 18, 2001, at the track he had dominated for years — his track, fans will tell you — the outpouring of emotion was unmatched in sports.

Earnhardt’s death at age 49 was front-page news across the country. Fans of all drivers — not just the No. 3 car fans — built instant memorials at home and at the Daytona International Speedway. The 2001 season became a yearlong farewell tribute. Doves were released at some races. Fans held up three fingers during a third-lap moment of silence. Seemingly every driver who won a race dedicated his victory to Earnhardt’s memory.

“The nature of his death was so jarring; there was no way to get closure. It was going to be hard enough for Earnhardt to retire and have fans let go of him,” said David Poole, a veteran NASCAR columnist with the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. “They’re trying to hold on, for a lot of them, to what brought them to the sport. He was the Yankees, he was Notre Dame.”

Such is the case with Susie Behler, whose husband, Keith, turned her onto Earnhardt 14 years ago. “That was the one big thing that brought us together,” she said. Though she had family members who raced and followed the sport, it was Earnhardt who took her fandom to the next level.

It also put her in the unemployment line the day after Earnhardt died.

“I called [the boss] Monday morning, I was all upset and crying and freaking out,” Behler said. “I said, ‘I’m not coming in to work today.’ She goes, ‘Yeah, you are.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And she goes, ‘Well, you have to come.’

“And I said, ‘You know what? Take your job and shove it. I quit.’ And I didn’t go to work.”

Mrs. Behler instead parked her Earnhardt bus in front of her house in Palmerton, Pa., and declared a “Hail to Dale Day,” to the delight of local news channels and the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, which put her photo on the front page of its sports section.

“Hail to Dale Day” has become an annual tradition in Palmerton, and Mrs. Behler gets the bus on the road on Earnhardt’s April 29 birthday. The Behler fleet also includes her “Budmobile” — a red Oldsmobile with “Budweiser” and No. 8 painted on the side — and a Monte Carlo Super Sport with real racing tires, No. 8s on the windows and “Intimidator” painted on the side.

“My only dream left is to get Junior to come to my house,” Mrs. Behler said. “For just an hour. I want to take him for a ride in my Monte.”

She doubtlessly is not the only one.

There are at least two other full-length Earnhardt-themed buses lined up in the same row as the Behlers’ on the Pocono infield. And across the way, two young couples from West Virginia share a renovated mini-schoolbus with a similar Dale Sr.-Dale Jr. split — right down to the curtains inside the vehicle.

An Earnhardt fan for 18 years, Jim Hile still attends races but hasn’t picked another driver to follow. Mr. Hile dragged his unique white storage trailer to Pocono from Clearfield, Pa., hauling his family’s camping and cooking gear just as he does for the five other races he attends each year.

He built the trailer from scratch and paid an artist $465 to put a charcoal sketch of Earnhardt’s face on each side.

“We get a lot of compliments, and people getting their picture taken with it and so forth,” Mr. Hile said. “It’s not a big, bold thing, but if you knew the man, you know who it is. You don’t need to put a No. 3 on it or nothing.”

Tell that to the owner of a nearby trailer that has “Fear This” and a big “3” emblazoned on the side, accompanied by a soaring Rebel flag. Or to La Neve, a mechanic who decks out his flatbed tow truck once each year for the Pocono race.

“I’ve always drawn since I was a kid, just right out of my head,” Mr. La Neve said as he showed off his work, a portrait of Earnhardt complete with race fans in the background and, of course, a big No. 3. “So I got a couple magazines, put them together in my mind.”

Such devotion to a driver who died 30 months ago might seem strange to outsiders, but even the most sober-minded in racing circles say it makes perfect sense.

“Honestly, I think its perfectly understandable if you understand that they’re channeling what they used to do every Sunday when they were hooting and hollering for the three car,” Mr. Poole said. “This is they way they profess their allegiance.”

Said NASCAR President Mike Helton: “The tragedy of the way Dale left endeared people to Dale Earnhardt’s name and his personality and his career that may not have necessarily been a tremendous fan of his at the point in time that we lost him. That energy and emotion that becomes part of the fan element exists with Dale.”

But not everyone appreciates the sentiments.

Earnhardt Jr. is one of them. Junior has on occasion voiced concerns about the obsessive nature of his father’s fans.

“That [stuff] is retarded, man,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in July 2001, when asked in particular about the homemade No. 3 stickers bearing wings and the message “God needed a driver.”

At Pocono, fans lined the fence beside the garage for hours waiting for some kind of acknowledgement — anything — from Junior, perceived to be heir to his father’s NASCAR throne. He didn’t budge from his hauler or the garage area.

One fan wanted desperately to give him an eerie, black-and-white picture he had created with computer software that depicted Junior and his father, their faces side by side and morphed into one.

Mrs. Behler made a home video — dubbed “Susie’s Cribs”, a take-off on the popular MTV show that showcases celebrity homes — that concludes with her smoking out the tires on her Monte Carlo in the street in front of her memorabilia-filled house.

Mrs. Behler gave Junior the movie — along with 25 copies of the Morning Call edition in which her picture leads the sports section — when she met him at an appearance in Philadelphia.

His reaction?

“He was really calm,” said the 50-year-old Mrs. Behler, who now cleans houses for a living. “Oh, my God, he smelled great. He’s so hot. I have a whole [photo] album of me hanging out in Philly with him.

“Yeah, that was the happiest day of my life when I got to meet him. I felt like I was meeting Elvis Presley. It was awesome, it was totally awesome.”

Less so, perhaps, for Junior.

“[Junior] said publicly that some of the things that fans have done — making memorials, trying to give them to him — [are] bizarre on some levels,” Mr. Poole said. “He’s lost his father; the fans have lost a hero. And there’s a huge difference. It’s a personal thing for Dale. As much as the fans think they know him, for Junior it’s a personal thing.”

Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) spokesman J.R. Rhodes said Junior has come a long way since the first year after his father’s death and tried to soften his take on the mementos sent to him by fans.

“He loves that stuff,” Mr. Rhodes said.

If that indeed is the case it is all the better for Junior, because the reminders certainly aren’t going away.

DEI opened its garage to the public on Senior’s birthday this year for just the second time. The company debuted its Dale Earnhardt Legacy logo, which all three of its drivers have on their cars and which spawned the first new Earnhardt merchandise since his death.

That debut coincided with the first Dale Earnhardt Tribute Concert in June at Daytona International Speedway. The concert benefited the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, an organization set up by Earnhardt’s wife, Teresa, to carry on his charitable causes.

And Richard Childress, who owned Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet, will drive a replica around the track at Lowe’s Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., before next month’s prime-time race. Childress also expanded his museum in Welcome, N.C., to include even more Earnhardt memorabilia and old race cars.

Whether Junior likes it or not, he plays a huge role in the ever-expanding Earnhardt legacy. No longer the young upstart racing in the shadow of his famous father, Junior now is the name and face of DEI.

Part of his inheritance are his father’s fans, many of whom still are looking for a hero to replace their fallen icon.

“I was really horrible for awhile,” Mrs. Behler said, recalling those first few days after Earnhardt’s death. “My husband cried. I was so devastated … I wouldn’t go grocery shopping. People took pictures of my refrigerator.

“If it wouldn’t be for No. 8, I would have tossed it all away. If [Earnhardt] wouldn’t have had a son, I don’t think I’d be here right now.”

But she is here, one of a legion of fans who can’t forget what they lost that day on the track at Daytona.

“I don’t sense it going away. Everybody’s still thinking about him,” Mr. Childress said. “He’s still in their minds. When those cars pull off, you still look for that black three.”

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