Life slowly returns to normal at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet
By Aaron Beard / AP
NEWTON, N.C. (June 1,
This engraved rock honoring The
Intimidator sits on the grounds of Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet in Newton, N.C.
In the weeks after Dale Earnhardt's death, fans flocked
to the auto dealership bearing his name, wanting to be close to something -- anything --
associated with the NASCAR great.
Some considered buying a car or truck with the Dale
Earnhardt Chevrolet metal decal -- complete with The Intimidator's signature -- affixed to
the trunk. Others went to the souvenir shop to buy just the decal or other memorabilia.
Now the fan flow, car sales and deluge of souvenir orders
have leveled off. Normalcy is beginning to return to the small western North Carolina
But for Tom Johnston, general manager since the business
opened in 1987, this is anything but normal.
Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet without Dale Earnhardt doesn't seem
"We've experienced tremendous loss," Johnston said.
"But our people are just very committed to this whole thing in keeping it the way
it's supposed to go."
Johnston met Earnhardt in 1976 when he moved from Atlanta to
take a job as general manager at a car dealership in Earnhardt's hometown of Kannapolis.
Four years later, Johnston moved back to Atlanta but stayed in touch with Earnhardt.
In 1985, Earnhardt approached Johnston about opening a
dealership. Two years later, Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet opened for business -- complete with
what Johnston brags is the cleanest service department and body shop around.
"This was one of his babies," Johnston said.
"He wanted it be different than other dealerships. He told me once, `Let's have fun
doing this. There's just one thing: Don't ever let a complaint get to me.' You had to do
your job. Occasionally one would slip through, but we'd sure guard against it.
"We felt like we had something to live up to. We don't
think it -- we know it. It's going to be representative of what he wanted."
Part of that included running the dealership as an open house
for Earnhardt fans. So, after Earnhardt's death in a Daytona 500 wreck in February, the
dealership became both business and shrine.
The office was closed for four days after Earnhardt died. It
reopened Feb. 23, the day after NASCAR held a memorial service at Calvary Church in
Charlotte and two days before a public service in Kannapolis, Earnhardt's hometown.
Fans who stood outside Calvary Church in the cold or visited
Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s headquarters in Mooresville and Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord
included the dealership in their memorial odyssey.
Wearing black No. 3 hats and "The Intimidator"
jackets, they wandered through the front lot, talking to each other and taking pictures of
the building, which features a massive replica of Earnhardt's signature across its front.
They came from Tennessee, Michigan, Maine and even Canada --
all for one reason.
"You feel close. He's here. This is his place,"
said Willadean Shatley of Lenoir. "He's special to us. He's always been. We don't
know who we're going to pull for now."
Melanie Moody drove from Columbia, S.C., to pay her respects
with a trade-in -- her Bonneville for a black Monte Carlo -- before attending the
"I guess it's like a grieving process," she said,
glancing up at Earnhardt's signature. "It is sort of odd, isn't it?"
Charles Vance and his fiancee, Barbara Pollygus, drove from
Newland to look at a used pickup truck. Vance admitted that while he's been shopping
around, he'd love to have Dale Earnhardt's signature on the back of his truck.
"What he stood for is what every father and man should
be," Vance said. "His family came first."
The week that Earnhardt died, the dealership's only statement
came on its Web site, thanking fans for their e-mails, cards and prayers after a
In the ensuing months, business picked up. Dale Earnhardt
Chevrolet normally moves an average of 100 vehicles a month. In the first two weeks of
March, Johnston said, it moved about 60 cars as buyers talked about monthly payments and
their favorite Earnhardt memories.
"They're race fans. That's the way they express
themselves," Johnston said. "It's one of the advantages we had when we went into
business. It was another way for the fan to get to their favorite driver."
In the dealership's souvenir shop, Brenda Leatherman worked
feverishly to handle a backlog of orders.
The week after Earnhardt's death, the dealership got about
10,000 orders for keepsakes and collectibles, including hats, shirts, board games and
die-cast cars. A normal load was an average of 8-10 orders a day.
Things got so bad that sales were temporarily stopped. Even
now, the dealership's Web site says it is still working on back orders from February and
"Have you ever seen a slot machine where the wheel just
rolls, rolls and rolls?" Leatherman said. "The numbers just kept rolling on the
As the months wore on, the stream of fans slowed to a
Charles Ranck, a welder from Ashtabula, Ohio, stopped by in
late April with his wife, Sandy, and son Chip on their way to Daytona Beach, Fla., for
Ranck had been buying souvenirs at the shop for 13 years, but
this was his first visit since Earnhardt's death.
"It's not the same," Ranck said. "I've been
kind of dreading coming down here because Brenda's been a friend for so long. I didn't
know what to expect."
Neither does Johnston, entirely. He still won't talk of his
personal feelings about Earnhardt's death, saying only that he misses his friend.
In the next breath, however, he points out that the business
has to move on as part of Earnhardt's legacy in North Carolina.
"We're back in the routine," Johnston said.
"Time is a great healer of things. We've refound our work ethic.
"There are good days and bad days, but we've got a job
to get done."
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