THIRTY-TWO HOURS. THAT'S HOW LONG DAN SIROIS REMAINED still while a tattoo artist in his hometown of Southington, Conn., perfected the homage to Dale Earnhardt Sr. that Sirois now takes with him wherever he goes. (That's him, left, at Talladega in May.) The masterpiece took four sittings to complete, but it was the least the longtime fan could do. "I loved Senior," says the 51-year-old Sirois, who has sported the art since 2002 and has collected more than 80 Earnhardt die-cast cars over the years. "It was either go faster or get out of my way. I'm kind of like that myself."
Whether they see a bit of themselves in Earnhardt, miss the excitement he brought to the sport or remember the kindness he showed to those in Kannapolis, N.C., his hometown, and Mooresville, N.C., where he settled, countless fans like Sirois cherish the moments when they found themselves in the presence of the seven-time champion. Kannapolis resident Rocky Wagner and his son, Daniel, who now plays for the hometown minor league baseball team (named the Intimidators in Earnhardt's honor), both remember the day Rocky introduced Dale Sr. to a nervous Daniel, who quickly realized that outside a race car the Intimidator wasn't intimidating at all. Radio host Paul Schadt, of WKKT in Charlotte, who befriended Earnhardt in the mid-1980s, says the champion comes up in conversations with listeners all the time. "It's mostly the stories of whether he made this move to win a race or maybe [about when] they got a chance to meet him," says Schadt. "Around here you could run into Dale Earnhardt pumping gas."
You might think you've run into the Intimidator himself if you saw Bob Brinkerhoff walking around Panama City, Fla. Earnhardt was his favorite driver, and he certainly favors the old champion, from his moustache to his black Goodwrench hat. "People give me the thumbs-up and tell me to keep the legend alive," says the 50-year-old Brinkerhoff, who won an NASCAR-driver look-alike contest in 2001 and has been posing for pictures ever since.
Chris and Tee Dieringer drove from Ohio to Kannapolis in 2004 to get married on Earnhardt's birthday at his statue, the centerpiece of the Dale Trail, which is mapped out along Earnhardt-related points of interest, from the spot in town that serves his favorite tomato sandwich to Richard Childress's shop 40 miles north. "We still miss Dale dearly," says Chris, whose four-year-old daughter is named Daytona, in honor of Earnhardt.
Sirois takes pride in helping keep Earnhardt's story fresh in the hearts and minds of NASCAR fans. "I just wanted to keep him in people's eyes so they can remember him," says Sirois. "People look at [my back] and say, 'Wow, the Intimidator. What a tribute.' "