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Monday, February 26
Living icon to fallen idol
By Jon Solomon
Scripps Howard News Service

Is it wrong for a grown man to mourn someone he never met?

What makes him shed tears over a stranger, attend public vigils with thousands of others, and collect memorabilia by the car load? What makes him sign his name at funeral homes to honor the stranger, drive hours for a memorial service he can't attend, and grieve as if he lost a loved one?

NASCAR Memorial
Brian Lawrence, right, comforts Susan Adcock as they look over a makeshift memorial to Dale Earnhardt outside North Carolina Speedway.

What makes him think the stranger would have done the same?

"It's like Superman is dead," a Dale Earnhardt fan told The Associated Press last week. "Heroes aren't supposed to die."

Earnhardt was an outstanding race car driver, perhaps the best ever. Seven Winston Cup championships, 76 career wins and $41 million in prize money serve as proof.

By all accounts, Earnhardt was a loving husband and father, a cherished friend and a respected rival who never backed down. His connection with NASCAR fans was undeniable: Love him or hate him, The Intimidator sparked passion.

But fans who flocked to racing speedways, funeral homes and memorial services last week didn't personally know Earnhardt. And this is where feeling sad about a tragic death becomes dicey.

This is where a firm grip of perspective can't be overstated enough.

The curious ritual of mourning celebrities is not new. If anything, it has become cliche.

Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Mickey Mantle, Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., among others, each attracted passionate emotions after they died. It's as if anything less than a public vigil means the deceased didn't capture society's imagination while alive.

Earnhardt entered that arena last week. You wonder what his family thinks. You wonder if they take comfort in knowing Earnhardt had so many supporters, or whether the family can't help but be perplexed at the events, too.

All across the country, speedways were filled with fans who left everything imaginable at the sites to honor Earnhardt. Many came to Charlotte just to be outside the private memorial service, which was televised to the whole world ... complete with a commentating crew.

Earnhardt's fans came to say good-bye to a talented driver whose image they adored.

By the very definition, fans (or fanatics) are "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion." This is not to make light of how they feel, because it's clear they have strong personal connections.

Why these feelings surface is the difficult question. Just saying the grown man mourns because he will miss watching Earnhardt race is too easy.

Maybe the grown man can't understand how a pillar of strength -- or the perception earned through the media -- could be suddenly gone. Diana was beautiful and survived the royal family, how is she dead? Earnhardt was tough and always survived wrecks, how is he dead?

Maybe the grown man thinks of chances he has let slip away. Mantle swung from his feet for the homer, strikeout be damned. Earnhardt touched bumpers at 180 mph and grinned all the way to the bank.

Maybe the grown man charts his own life and considers how many miles still remain. John-John played under his father's desk and was lost at sea before his potential was realized. Earnhardt transformed from a win-at-all costs racer into his final act: An owner and father paving interference so someone else could win.

When the grieving subsides, the grown man should buy one less item of memorabilia and one more piece of perspective. Spouses, children, parents, relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, co-workers -- these are the people to truly cherish.

These are the heroes.

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