Remembering Dale Earnhardt, every year at this same time

KANNAPOLIS - For Bill Burkhart, it's a painful but necessary ritual.  Every year on February 18, he drives from his home in Davidson, along Highway 3, to Kannapolis to visit the Dale Earnhardt Tribute Plaza.

That's where the tall statue of hometown hero Earnhardt stands, wearing sculpted Wrangler jeans, his arms across his chest, sunglasses in pocket, and a broad smile across his face.

The park also contains a number of benches, bricks, and markers.  Most included the name of a fan from near or far, and many have short messages like "forever in our hearts."

The park was built following the death of Earnhardt while he was racing in the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001.

Several members of his family, including his mother Martha, who still lives in Kannapolis,  were present when ground was broken.

The park is a touch point for fans who come just to spend a little time, especially on landmark days like the anniversary of his death.

"Just paying my respects to my hero, my driver that I've always been a fan of ever since I was a kid," Burkhhart told WBTV.  "Get to still remember him."

And like many of the loyal fans of the Intimidator, it doesn't take long for Bill to come up with one of his favorite memories.

"I was so glad I was at the Daytona 500 when he won it," Burkhart said.  "We used to live in Florida and used to go there every year and watch him lose it, and win the Daytona 499, a hundred times then lose it, but glad I was there for that one."

Burkhart spent time on Tuesday walking around the park, taking a few pictures.  Then he got back in his black Chevrolet truck with the huge #3 logo on the rear window, and headed for Highway 3, and home.