Stock car racing fans in Iowa are mourning the loss of one of the sport’s best-known drivers, Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash during the final lap of yesterday’s opening race, the Daytona 500. Tom Schmeh, director of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, says the wreck didn’t appear to be a fatal one.Earnhardt’s trademark black number-three car hit the wall at 180-miles an hour and it’s believed he died instantly. Earnhardt had a reputation for being an aggressive driver and was known as the Intimidator. Schmeh says some Iowans sport number-three stickers on their cars to show their love for Earnhardt while others have threes with a red circle and a slash through it.He says whether you loved or hated him, his death is a huge loss as he was a legend in the business. The 49-year-old had won NASCAR’s Winston Cup championship seven times. Schmeh believes Earnhardt was an Iowa landowner.He was a partner in buying land in south central Iowa near the Missouri border last year as a “hunting farm” for pheasant. Some say Earnhardt was an icon to his sport at the same level as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. While there are no NASCAR tracks in Iowa, Schmeh says racing is huge in the Hawkeye State.Iowa has more race tracks per capita than any other state in the U-S. There’s talk of building a large race track in the Newton area. Webster City native and local speedway promoter Howard Mellinger was in Daytona, Florida, for yesterday’s race and got to meet Earnhardt on Saturday. He spoke to Earnhardt as the driver signed autographs.Mellinger says there’s speculation on what actually killed Earnhardt and whether more safety equipment should have been used by the veteran driver.Mellinger is a race promoter in Allison, Denison and used to work closely with Webster City’s Hamilton County Speedway. He says driver safety is a top concern.Three NASCAR drivers died during the 2000 racing season. Yesterday’s race was the first of 2001.
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