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Hampton race fan expands Earnhardt collection

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Dee J. Ray first became interested in motor racing as a youngster in the 1960s, attending races with her now-85-year-old mother, Marie Pillow. The Daytona 500 was one race she and her mother attended.

"When I had kids, I took them to the races in Atlanta," said Ray.

Over the years, she has participated in the sport, both as a racer and as a fan. Ray said she raced, between 1974 and 1991, in a cross-country circuit affiliated with The National Council of Corvette Clubs.

"I was a single mom with three kids," recalled Ray, the mother of daughters Donna Johnson and Debbie St. John, and son Dean Baxter.

Her daughter, Donna, partly joking about her youth, acknowledged the hot days, eating from the 99-cent menu at Krystal restaurant and riding to motor races in her mother's car with no air conditioning. Her mother said it helped the family save on then-"49-cent gas."

"We had a lot of good times on a very low budget," Ray said.

These days, Ray is grandmother to four children, and she works as a special projects coordinator with Aflac Insurance, working out of Sunny Side, Ga. The company sponsors Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards and the No. 99 Ford Fusion.

Ray has a few posters of the 31-year-old Nationwide Series Champion sprinkled throughout her high rise condominium overlooking the Atlanta Motor Speedway, in Hampton.

Ray is also a huge fan of legendary stock car racer, the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. She has been an Earnhardt fan since the 1970s, and her fanaticism of him shows in the numerous displays she keeps filled with Earnhardt memorabilia.

Ray said she met Earnhardt several times over the course of his career, and she has continued to actively collect items emblazoned with Earnhardt's signature No. 3 -- even after his death in 2001.

"I actively search for them," she said.

Ray said she has stored away hundreds of items since the 1980s, when she began collecting Earnhardt race memorabilia.

The grandmother gushes over her collections and invites friends up to her condominium to watch Friday Night Drags at the speedway in Hampton. Her goal, she said, is to make them into hardcore race fans.

The racing enthusiast has garnered the admiration of fellow fans and racers alike over the decades, none more than friend Bob Lee, of McDonough.

Lee, who considers himself an old-school racing fan, is one of Ray's regular race night partygoers. He recently bestowed upon her the latest item in her collection of Earnhardt souvenirs.

Lee gave Ray a leather jacket he said was given to him several years ago by an Earnhardt crew member, and recently signed by NASCAR legend Richard Childress, as well as Earnhardt's son, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

"She [Ray] loves racing, and she's got grandchildren that love racing," said Lee. "I know it will be kept in good hands and sent down through generations."