Dale Earnhardt visits W.Va. GM plant

June 03, 1998|By BOB PARASILITI

by Kevin G. Gilbert / staff photographer

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Dale arrives

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Two may be company, but a stylized 3 drew a crowd Tuesday when Dale Earnhardt came to town.

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The popularity of the seven-time Winston Cup driving champion, whose car sports the number 3, was evident as NASCAR racing fans from the four-state area descended on the General Motors Service Parts Operations plant outside Martinsburg.

Fans, some from Pennsylvania to Virginia, started showing up 3 1/2 hours before Earnhardt's scheduled appearance and eventually the line spanned the plant's parking lot along Interstate 81.


"I've been for years trying to get a chance to meet him," said John Groves of Sharpsburg, who was one of the first to get Earnhardt's autograph. "I'm just a die-hard Earnhardt fan and love auto racing. We go to a lot of races."

Groves, who was in a wheelchair, admitted his wait wasn't as long as some others.

"I got some special considerations," he said with a smile. "A woman who had been sitting here since 9:30 this morning let me get in line ahead of her."

Earnhardt's presence prompted some people to change their plans for the day.

One young man skipped a final exam at school for the chance to meet the driver.

Workers at the Budweiser plant across I-81 stood on the roof of their plant, trying to catch a long-distance glimpse of racing's "Intimidator." They flopped a giant black flag with Earnhardt's trademark No. 3 over the side of the building.

Earnhardt and his son, Dale Jr., were on hand as part of the plant's 30th anniversary celebration.

Both Earnhardts drive Chevrolet Monte Carlos, a GM product. The elder Earnhardt is a Winston Cup mainstay, while his son is carving a niche on the Grand National circuit with two wins, including last Saturday's MBNA 200 in Dover, Del.

The atmosphere in anticipation of Earnhardt's arrival was carnival-like. NASCAR showcars were on display, including rival Jeff Gordon's rainbow-colored No. 24. Food and music stands dotted the lot along with each driver's souvenir trailer.

Most fans carried their own memorabilia, ranging from posters and hats sporting the No. 3 to racing tires.

"I like him because he's a good driver," said a grinning Beau Stokes, 9, of Martinsburg. He leaned against his newly autographed racing slick, which had been used by Earnhardt in last weekend's Dover race. His family bought it at an auction.

"I want to be a driver when I grow up," Stokes said.

Crowds parted as Earnhardt, dressed in his trademark black, walked across the GM lot to his autograph location. Cameras clicked and heads swung as he passed through the crowd.

The 20-year Winston Cup veteran climbed onto a radio soundstage and greeted his fans before signing autographs.

"I tore up two good race cars in Charlotte the other week," he said. "But I want to try and win some races for you and get back up to win that eighth championship."

Fans, old and young alike, indicated they approved of his sentiments.

"The guys who work at the GM plant follow him, but I just started getting into it in the last couple of years," said Rachael Eckstine of Mercersburg, Pa. She was holding her 11-month-old grandson, Garrett Starr, who had his picture taken with Earnhardt.

"He looks great on TV, but I think he's so much better in person," Eckstine said.

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