Fans and friends together are mourning the loss of seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Sunday.
The 49-year-old stock car legend was traveling 180 mph, when his car was tapped from behind, turned around and sent head-on into a track wall. Moments later, his teammate Michael Waltrip and his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished the race in first and second places.
Waltrip, said he kept waiting to hear teammate Earnhardt congratulate him on winning the race that ultimately claimed his life.
"I won the race and was telling everybody about it, and I just couldn't wait till I got that big grab on the neck and a big hug [from Earnhardt]," said Waltrip at a Daytona Beach news conference Monday. "I just knew any minute Dale was going to run in victory lane …"
One of Racing’s Greatest
Dozens of candles, teddy bears, letters and cards are piling up along Indianapolis Motor Speedway in honor of a man who gave racing fans much joy and excitement. Fans held a candlelight vigil Monday night at Daytona International Speedway, the site of Earnhardt's fatal accident, and flags from Indianapolis to Atlanta to Daytona are waving at half-staff.
In Welcome, N.C., fans gathered outside the headquarters of Earnhardt's racing team to memorialize their hero.
"I didn't know him personally," said Leslie Norris, who brought flowers to the North Carolina site. "But from what I understand, he was really a good guy. We hate to see things like that happen to people, especially to somebody that we look up to like this."
"To this community, he meant a lot," said fan Steve Mundy in Welcome. "You know, this community is … built on family ties. If something happens to one person in this community it happens to all of us."
Fellow racers mourned the lost of a colleague and personal friend.
"I've never seen anyone do things with a race car that this man could do," said Dale Jarrett, winner of the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship and last year's Daytona 500. "He was simply the best, and that's because he wanted to be that. We all had that desire to be the best, but he had all the ingredients to make that happen.
"I'm sure there have been a lot of great drivers," Jarrett continued, "and there have been: my dad included and Richard Petty — many, many others that could be included on that list as being the greatest of all time. But you'd certainly have a hard time in not putting Dale Earnhardt at the very top of that list."
Earnhardt's body was returned to North Carolina Monday night for burial, ESPN.com reported. A private funeral will be held for family and friends on Thursday morning at Calvary Church in Charlotte, N.C., The Associated Press reported today. (ESPN.com, like ABCNEWS.com, is owned by the Walt Disney Co.)
Pressure to Make Sport Safer
Earnhardt's death has renewed pressure by some for NASCAR to instill tougher safety requirements for drivers, such as head and neck protection and softer race track walls.
However, some experts say such fatal accidents would not have been avoided with those measures.
"One hit like that — the one in a hundred, where you hit directly into the wall and you go from 185 miles an hour to zero in a millisecond, that kind of deceleration injury — I don't think there's anything that could have made a difference," Dr. Jerry Punch, an ESPN racing analyst and emergency room doctor, said on Good Morning America.