There he stood, tougher than a $2 steak, neck by Rawlings, a good 50 hard years behind him, tears dripping off his beard.
J.W. Martin had driven eight hours for this—the late Dale Earnhardt's 52nd birthday, the one day of the year when worshipers of the NASCAR driver are allowed to enter his 70,000-square-foot Garage Mahal in Mooresville, N.C.—and now it was just too damn much for him.
Martin was standing between a row of four cars that Earnhardt had used to wax other drivers and the 1957 coral-pink street Chevy that Earnhardt had lovingly waxed himself, and the ol' boy was suddenly butter.
"People just don't understand what he meant," said a sniffling Martin, who back home in Lebanon, Tenn., has Earnhardt commemorative glasses and plates, blanket, wall decor, wet bar, truck, car, boat and grandbaby's car seat. "Racin' just ain't been the same without him."
On April 29 about 13,000 people like Martin made the pilgrimage to Dale Earnhardt Inc. headquarters on Dale Earnhardt Highway 3 in the town known as Dalesville to see some of the pistons the great man pumped, some of the hats he wore and some of the trophies he held over those hats.
There were men with Dale Sr.'s face tattooed on their right forearms and Dale Jr.'s on their left. There were women driving $31,000 Dale Earnhardt signature Monte Carlos, one with the plate DALESGR8. "See this pitcher?" said Elwood Jones of Rocky Mount, Va., showing an 11-by-14 photograph from the 2001 Daytona 500. "This was taken 20 minutes before Dale died. It's for sale, but I ain't sellin' to nobody but a true Dale fan. And I can tell."
Like Elvis's, Earnhardt's legend has only grown in death. It's been more than two years since he died in "the perfect crash," as it's called, the grisly combination of speed and angle of impact that killed him. "How long did I cry?" asked Jones. "Buddy, I ain't stopped."
This was the second birthday open garage, and fans slept outside the night before to be among the first in line. For what? For the gift shop, of course, a place they can get into most every other day of the year.
"Looks like you bought something," I said to Julie Weist, who drove 1,100 miles, from Dows, Iowa, with her husband, Mark.
"Yep," she said, wiping away tears. "I'm gonna frame it."