Published 12:00 am Monday, March 12, 2001

fans from near and far say farewell to Earnhardt

Bennett Gunter, 6, and 9-year-old Chance Purifoy, back, both of Vicksburg, peer into the No. 3 Oreo car of the late Dale Earnhardt, which went on display along with Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car and Terry Labonte’s No. 5 car Friday at Atwood Chevrolet-Oldsmobile in Vicksburg. About 1,500 fans, some from as far away as South Carolina, came to pay tribute to Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. (The Vicksburg Post/ROB MAXWELL)

[03/12/01] Fans of late NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt turned out in droves Thursday to see the seven-time Winston Cup champion’s car on display at Atwood Chevrolet.

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Nearly 1,500 people flocked to the dealership from as far away as South Carolina for the chance to see the black No. 3 Oreo show car of Earnhardt’s in one of its last public showings, the last in this area.

The car, which Earnhardt drove to Victory Lane at Rockingham in 1995 before it was reworked into a show car, has about 50 contracted appearances around the country this year, a Richard Childress Racing representative said.

“I think it was a real tribute to the fans that didn’t get to go to North Carolina. Richard Childress ought to be commended for having this for the fans,” said Crystal Springs resident John Hobbs, 47, whose 6-year-old son Matthew was wearing an Earnhardt jumpsuit and helmet.

The showing was arranged last fall, long before Earnhardt’s death in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. Instead of the usual festivities that go along with a display, however, the mood was somber.

Dealership president Alan Atwood said he saw some visitors crying, and he admitted to choking back some tears himself. Fans filled a memorial book with hundreds of signatures and farewells to Earnhardt, and Atwood and his wife, Donna, displayed some of their own collection of Earnhardt memorabilia.

The display, which took up three glass cases, included nearly two dozen model cars, two large display boards of souvenir pins, an autographed hat and several Coke bottles featuring Earnhardt’s likeness.

“It kind of gives you a little bit of closure. You get to know these people and it’s almost like a family,” said Vicksburg’s Marie Baker, 37.

Also on display were the No. 24 car of three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and the No. 5 car of Terry Labonte a last-minute addition to the lineup. Atwood said the No. 5 car was being transported along with Gordon’s, and the Hendricks Motorsports team unloaded both at the North Frontage road dealership.

But it was Earnhardt’s car that drew the crowd.

Young and old, The Intimidator’s fans and some who weren’t his fans flowed through the showroom to pay their respects.

“It didn’t matter if we were rooting for Earnhardt or not, but you always watched the race with the anticipation of, What’s he going to do?’ You knew he was always going to stir something up,” said Baker, who added she was a Gordon fan but came with her uncle, Joe Friley, a “diehard Earnhardt fan.”

For all of his ferocity and aggressiveness during a race, Earnhardt had a reputation as a warm, generous person after it was over.

“There’s a lot of (good) things he’s done behind closed doors that you never heard anything about,” said David Eberling, 46, of Vicksburg.

“Today is what our Saturdays usually are when we have cars here,” he said. “I can only imagine what (Saturday) is going to be like.”