CHARLOTTE, Feb. 22 -- Dale Earnhardt was eulogized in song, sermon and scripture Thursday during a memorial service attended by more than 6,000 invited guests who paid their final respects to one of auto racing's greatest champions.
Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, was killed Sunday in a crash on the final turn of the final lap of the 43rd Daytona 500.
Thursday was a grim day, befitting the occasion. The streets were icy, the skies gray and air damp as thousands of mourners quietly filed into Calvary Church to say farewell to a sporting icon.
"This is just a very bad day for everyone," said Tommy Houston, the brother of Earnhardt's widow, Teresa. "We never thought a day like this would ever happen, but now it's here."
Junior Johnson, a legendary former driver and team owner said he was having problems coping with the reality that the sport's greatest driver was dead.
"It's very sad," Johnson said. "His death will really affect the sport. For the past few years, NASCAR has tried to portray itself as fun and games and forgot that it was really serious business. Dale Earnhardt's death proves that this sport isn't fun and games."
Even drivers from other racing series' were awestruck at the impact of Earnhardt's death. Tommy Kendall is a sports car racer who holds the SCCA Trans-Am Series record for most wins in a season. Kendall has competed in several Winston Cup races on road courses and even tried out in a Petty Enterprises Pontiac in 1992 when he was being considered as the driver after Richard Petty retired.
Kendall flew in from Manhattan Beach, Calif. to pay his respects to his hero.
"In our own little circle, race drivers are heroes to one group of fans and friends or another," Kendall said. "But Earnhardt was the hero to the heroes. We all worshipped, respected and feared Dale Earnhardt. I don't care if you were Al Unser Jr. or Jeff Gordon or Dale Jarrett or whoever, Dale Earnhardt was the driver that we all looked at as our hero.
"What his death has done is expose all of the raw edges that still exist in this sport. And believe me, there are plenty of raw edges here."
Earnhardt was the one driver in all of auto racing who appeared invincible, which is why his death has been so hard to accept.
"It's like discovering that bullets don't bounce off Superman's chest," Kendall said.
Thursday's service was a much larger version of a similar ceremony held for the Earnhardt family Wednesday morning at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Mooresville, N.C. After that service, the NASCAR legend was laid to rest at an undisclosed location.
Randy Owen, lead singer for the country group Alabama, sang two songs and NASCAR chaplain Dale Beaver delivered the eulogy that praised Earnhardt as a loving and caring family man.
Forty-five busloads of mourners came to the the service and police tightly controlled traffic around the church. To discourage the public from coming to the church, no parking was provided for anyone who did not have an invitation.
Standing near the altar bedecked with hundreds of floral arrangements, including two red-and-white arrangements shaped in Earnhardt's uniform No. 3, Owen began the service with a song he had written for the Earnhardt family.
After Rev. John Cozart of St. Mark's Lutheran Church read from scripture, Beaver delivered a 10-minute eulogy in which he described how his fear of meeting Earnhardt for the first time was quickly softened by the NASCAR champion's concern for his children.
"I want everyone to tell a story about Dale Earnhardt, and I'm sure you all have one, and then laugh," Beaver said. "Dale would be happy that we would be laughing about him."
Beaver recalled his own first meeting with Earnhardt. Members of Motor Racing Outreach, which serves as the ministry to the NASCAR family, were planning a children's camping trip at Pocono, Pa. Beaver was told he had to get Earnhardt to sign a parental permission slip.
Afraid to introduce himself to the racing legend, who was known as "The Intimidator," Beaver asked Earnhardt's public relations representative J.R. Rhodes to get the signature.
Rhodes returned with the permission slip unsigned and Beaver was told that Earnhardt wanted to see him personally.
"I expected to find a person eating a bear, but instead I saw a man eating an orange and in a warm manner he invited me in to meet him," Beaver recalled. "He was concerned about his child. He wanted to know our intentions about his daughter, Taylor, going on the camping trip. I walked out of there getting a lesson in parenthood. They grow up fast and you need to spend as much time with them as you can.
"I knew when I walked out of that room that I had been in the presence of greatness."
All of the employees of Dale Earnhardt Inc., which owns the car for Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's son and second-place Daytona 500 finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park, all filed into the church dressed with the same black shirt. The DEI logo was on the left side of the shirt on the chest.
Sterling Marlin, the driver whose Dodge made contact with Earnhardt's Chevrolet that resulted in the fatal crash, attended the service along with other fellow Winston Cup drivers.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, his wife Laura and mother Mari Hulman George, were escorted to their seats along with Daytona International Speedway president John Graham and International Speedway Corporation board member John Cooper.
NASCAR and CART team owner Roger Penske and his wife Cathy were also present.
NASCAR's France family along with NASCAR president Mike Helton took their seats before a North Carolina Highway Patrol Honor Guardsman escorted Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and youngest daughter, Taylor, to their seats.
Owens concluded a song that he has written for the memorial service with the words, "That one word hurts so bad when you lose the friend you had. Goodbye until then."
Beaver closed his sermon by saying, "God grants them a safe race, but sometimes he doesn't. Jesus did not intervene, so that we will all see and experience his greater glory."
He recalled the story of Lazarus and said, "Unwrap him and let him go. When I walked that day in the presence of greatness, I met with a person and discovered a flower."