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One Man's Tribute Visible To The Heavens


 When Dale Earnhardt died, race fans congregated by the thousands -- in person and in cyberspace -- to share in the grieving process. They wrote songs, poems and talked of their first-hand encounters with The Intimidator. Fifty-four-year-old Jim Hunt of Cocoa, Fla., went into his back yard to do something "selfish." Hunt, a self-employed insurance repair contractor who entertains NASCAR race team members each year during Speedweeks at Daytona, tilled a 353-foot "3" in a low-lying grassy area of his property with the help of two employees. "I had to do something," Hunt said. "I've been a NASCAR fan since NASCAR has been NASCAR," and a fan of Earnhardt's for more than 20 years. "I couldn't figure out what to do that would make Jim Hunt feel better. "It's hard to lose somebody like Dale Earnhardt," he said. "That `3' was just a way for me to say `goodbye.' I'm not a songwriter or a poet." With the exception of a few years spent serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Hunt has not missed a Daytona 500 since he was 18 years old. Since those late teen years when he discovered racing, Hunt has grown as a fan right along with the sport. Through the years, he has hitched his wagon to the fortunes of "King Richard" Petty, Harry Gant and Earnhardt. "Fans are fickle and if they don't like what you're doing, they'll drop your ass in a heartbeat," Hunt said, adding that Earnhardt was an exception. His fans were faithful, no matter what. "Dale Earnhardt didn't have too much time for his fans because he had too many of them." On Feb. 19, the day after Earnhardt's death, Hunt found himself with two employees so distraught over the incident they were unable to work. Figuring he had to do something for them, he piled them in the car and made the hour's drive to Daytona where fans were erecting spontaneous memorials all around the track. "It made all of us feel better." But it wasn't enough, so he set out to do one thing more. "On the way back I thought of trying to build a big No. 3." He tilled a large patch of earth near the water in the shape of Earnhardt's trademark No. 3. Then, Hunt and his crew set about outlining his tribute with lime. Typically, this area will flood at least once a year. He hopes after the waters have come and gone, the grass where the lime is will be greener than the rest, preserving the shape of the "3." The "3" is placed in such a way that many people besides Hunt, who is a licensed fixed- and rotary-wing pilot, will be able to pass over and see the tribute. "We're all gonna miss him. I know that," he said. "I wanted people to fly over the cape and see that `3.' When the space shuttle lands they should be able to see it, too." For many, the shock is wearing off and the grieving process is giving way to an examination of what led to the death of a beloved racing icon. For Hunt, there is no cause for finger-pointing or blame. No bitterness. Just a deep, personal sense of loss that moved one man to move some earth. "I just did it to make me feel better," he said. "What do you do when you lose a hero? I've only had a few of them."