CHARLOTTE, N.C. — CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Hundreds of baskets of flowers lined the entry hall and the altar of Calvary Church yesterday, as nearly 4,000 mourners gathered for an invitation-only memorial service for seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, 49, a legendary driver, was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 Sunday. He was buried Wednesday after a private service in his hometown of Kannapolis, N.C. President Bush called the family to offer condolences. But yesterday, on a bitterly cold and rainy day, NASCAR competitors, his friends and family gathered again to bid farewell in a heartbreaking service.
The church, built of rose marble and stucco, rises three stories, with floor-to-roof windows in a glorious celebration of everlasting life. Assembled inside, mourners sat on pale-rose padded seats. Boxes of tissues were placed on the pews of the immediate family.
The gathering listened to two hours of soft, lively jazz performed by John Leon Lewis, the minister of music for the Calvary Church, and Chris Walters, a Nashville songwriter, which ranged from "God Bless the Child" and "This Little Light of Mine" to a Beethoven sonata. While the songs filled the air, two large overhead screens ran slides of verses from the Bible, including Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd ... ") and Romans 5:8 ("But God commendeth his love toward us ... ").
And then the sanctuary hushed and the assembly rose, as Earnhardt's wife, Teresa, and their 12-year-old daughter, Taylor Nicole, escorted by North Carolina State Police Lt. Eddie White, led the family to the pews in the middle of the church.
Randy Owen of the singing group Alabama opened the service with a song he'd written.
"Until I see you again.
"I'll love and I'll miss you till then.
"Remember me," sang Owen, " 'cause I care where you are and how you fare."
The Rev. John Cozart, pastor of St. Mark's, the church the Earnhardts attend in Kannapolis, told the story of Jesus restoring life to Lazarus, bringing home the message, "He who believes in the Lord will never die."
Chaplain Dale Beaver, who travels with the Winston Cup teams as the series' minister through Motor Racing Outreach, told the congregation to do three things: "Tell a Dale Earnhardt story and laugh. Listen to the emotions that go with those stories. And pray."
With Taylor Nicole seated beside her, with Earnhardt's good friends, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn (country recording artists Brooks and Dunn), and her stepchildren, Kerry, Dale Jr., Kelly, and their families surrounding her, Teresa Earnhardt listened.
And then, to the surprise of many, she got up. Escorted by White, she walked up on the altar, to the microphone and stopped. She looked out at the assembly, at all the people she knew had come out of love and respect for her husband and her hands fluttered up to her heart.
She lifted her right hand to her lips and blew a soft kiss toward her family, her extended family at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and toward her husband's car owner, Richard Childress, and the people who work for him. Then she blew another, toward all the other drivers, their teams and car owners.
And then, her hands back over her heart, she said in a voice so soft and so thin that it could hardly be heard, "Thank you."
"We'll never know if she meant to say more," said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, after the service. "But the two words she spoke were the most powerful and touching I've ever heard. And she couldn't have been more eloquent if she'd said a thousand."
In a sport whose participants try to ignore its inherent danger and thus tend to avoid attending funerals, it was difficult to come up with a name of even one absentee.
Champions Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ned Jarrett, Bobby and Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott and Richard Petty were there. As were Jeff and Ward Burton, John Andretti, Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt's teammate Mike Skinner and Kenny Schrader, who crashed in the same wreck with Earnhardt Sunday.
And Sterling Marlin.
It was Marlin's car that tapped Earnhardt's and set off the fatal chain of events. Many wondered if he would come, given the initial harsh backlash that included death threats after the accident.
But he, too, was there.
The men and women who worked for Dale Earnhardt Inc. came on buses. They wore their crisp, black DEI shirts with the red and silver logo. They came solemn-faced and pale. And an inordinate number of the men sported Dale Earnhardt look-alike mustaches.
Michael Waltrip was with them, in his DEI shirt. He looked 10 years older than the man who Sunday won his first Winston Cup race driving Earnhardt's car.
The legendary driver and car owner Junior Johnson shook his head after the service, still unable to imagine that he was attending Dale Earnhardt's funeral. And then, looking around at all the attendees, he said: "I guess no one realized the value of him until this happened."
Bill Joyner, racing manager for Union 76, was one of many corporate executives here who was still trying to fathom that Earnhardt is really gone.
"I've known Dale for 25 years," Joyner said. "To see how he grew up, to see what he became and beyond the facade, the humor he had, that twinkle in his eye and that smile - impish, almost ... The shock is that we believed he was invincible. We believed it. It's the shock of that that makes it so hard to accept."
Drivers and car owners greeted one another and every now and then told a story. Car owner Rick Hendrick took one look at Darrell Waltrip's crumbling face and wrapped his arms around him.
Waltrip, who retired at the end of last season, had a long-running rivalry with Earnhardt and a long-running friendship. The two would often joke about how they would enjoy their retirement together in rocking chairs, trading old stories.
Standing nearby, Darrell Waltrip's wife, Stevie, hugged a friend and waited for her husband.
"I am counting my blessings," she said.