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Sign of the Times

Some Coke machines bearing the life-size image of fallen auto racer Dale Earnhardt have met one of two different, yet equally unusual, fates in the wake of deadly wreck at Daytona Beach Feb. 18.

A. They've been transformed into shrines.

or

B. They've been plundered by thieves.

Grieving fans are placing flowers and other mementos at the Earnhardt Coke machines throughout Virginia.

Earnhardt was one of 11 NASCAR drivers who helped Coca-Cola hawk its products. Part of the campaign included emblazoning their images on plastic panels — or vend covers — that were then mounted on the front of vending machines.

Earnhardt's was the most popular — the one most requested by business owners leasing a NASCAR-themed vending machine.

That's where the next level of shrines enters the picture.

Some of those business owners don't want to give up their Earnhardt machines — which leaves Coca-Cola in an "uncomfortable position," says company spokesman Scott Williamson.

But Coke — like many of the other companies that used Earnhardt as a marketing tool — wants to yank the Earnhardt ads now.

The company's reasons are part professional, part personal, Williamson says. "Yes, we need to move forward with our ad campaign, but it also just feels like the respectful thing to do," he says.

Some customers definitely want the machines removed, Williamson says, but they're driven by a different motive. "They're worried about thieves," he explains.

They have good reason to be. Though Coke had no numbers to report, Earnhardt vend covers are being pried off machines with at least some regularity.

"If they can't get the cover off, they're taking the whole machine," says a woman who answered the phone at the Richmond Coke distributorship.

A search of the Internet auction site eBay Thursday evening turned up four Earnhardt vend covers and one complete machine being offered for sale. Bids on the covers were running about $200.

The vending machine had reached $2,125. A description accompanying its ad said the machine was in near-perfect condition: "Only flaw, it needs a new lock."

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