It's not just that Ernie Irvan has awakened from a coma, shed his life-support system and beaten death on a 10-to-l long shot. It's that only two months after his awful crash during practice at Michigan International Speedway. Irvan is up and about. Bouncy, chipper, chatty, alert. Hopping motor scooters and riding horses—against doctors' orders, of course.
He has recovered sufficiently to have developed a phobia, not of enduring another bad wreck, but of going back to being nobody. It is common among the men who drive NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit: a fear of obscurity that overshadows all the usual human fears. And so, of course, Irvan is bent on getting back into the kind of car that nearly killed him.
The patch over his left eye notwithstanding, Irvan exudes the classic California demeanor, the sense that everything's cool. Really. Except for the frequency with which he expresses to friends and relatives and reporters what he calls "the fear of being forgotten." Though his cars and crew at Robert Yates Racing wait faithfully for the moment when Irvan is deemed ready to drive again, doctors expect him to miss at least a year. There is a chance that he won't be able to return at all. And Irvan knows that in NASCAR, "the deal is, out of sight, out of mind."
There are 16 days in August and September that Irvan docs not remember. Most mercifully absent from his memory is the early morning of Aug. 20, when, during practice for the Good-wrench 400, the right front tire failed on his Ford Thunderbird, sending the car slamming broadside into a concrete retaining wall on the two-mile Michigan oval. (Reports of a nearly head-on crash were erroneous.) For three days Irvan lay comatose, his skull "cracked like an eggshell," says one of his doctors. He had severe contusions of the brain and the lungs. For two weeks he lay in fitful semiconsciousness while his wife, Kim, kept him from pulling at the 14 tubes running in and out of his body.
He can shrug now at how close he came to death. He can even shrug at the deluge of medical bills that, he says, "could be two million bucks" before his ordeal is over (most of his expenses will be covered by NASCAR's, Yates's and his own insurance). What haunts him is knowing where he was at 8:19 a.m. on the day of the crash: just shy of the pinnacle of his sport. Irvan was closing in on Dale Earnhardt in the race for this year's Winston Cup season championship. Now, he says, "nobody remembers that I was in the championship hunt. Well, maybe they do. But not much."
To be sure, the hot story now among NASCAR's cult legions is Earnhardt's seventh season championship, a feat that ties Richard Petty's career record. Little noted is the fact that Earnhardt cakewalked to the title because Irvan was no longer around him, on his bumper, beside him or in front of him.
NASCAR is big on showing the world how it can stop and bow its head and weep for its dead (Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison. Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr were all killed within the last two years). Yet immediately after a funeral NASCAR roars away, all eyes ahead down the track, "WFO," as they like to say, referring to running with the throttle "wide——open." Denial is an occupational necessity. The drivers, the mechanics, the owners can't wait on anybody. Sit in the pits an extra 20 seconds, and you're out of it. Forget sitting out a year.
So there is an undercurrent of anxiety to Irvan's otherwise welcome R and R on his farm near Mooresville, N.C., with Kim, their 14-month-old daughter, Jordan, and their prize Paso fino horses, which go for an average of $50,000 a head. "Ernie appears largely to have escaped the cognitive, emotional and fatigue problems so often associated with [a neurological) injury as severe as his," says Dr. James McDeavitt, medical director of the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation, from which Irvan was released on Sept. 30. "I've seen very few patients recover that well from injuries that severe." And Irvan's lungs, McDeavitt says, are "completely healed."
By Oct. 14 Irvan was doing so well that he stopped his physical rehabilitation and was permitted routine workouts at a gym. Now the biggest obstacle to the resumption of his career lies beneath the eye patch, where damaged nerves and muscles cause double vision and deny him the depth perception so essential to race drivers. It is uncertain how much eye-muscle coordination Irvan will recover. He understands, he says, that his doctors "can't guarantee I'll ever race again."
What a thought for Irvan, 35, who had risen so far. In 1982 he set out from Salinas, Calif., in a pickup towing a basic race car frame that he had built himself. He had $300, hardly enough to make it to North Carolina, the epicenter of stock car racing. So, he says, "I stopped in Vegas and won about $400 more playing blackjack." He arrived in Charlotte, and with his pay from odd jobs he built a dirt-track car on the frame he had brought and got a racing engine from Keith Dorton, a builder accustomed to granting credit to struggling racers. "Keith told me about the times when Dale Earnhardt wouldn't have food but had to have an engine," says Irvan. "Keith would let him have one and not worry about it—Dale could pay him in six months or whenever."
Irvan worked during the day, prepared his car at night, ran the local dirt tracks on Saturday nights and spent Sundays in a mobile home watching Winston Cup races on a borrowed black-and-white TV. Earnhardt, well into the big time by then, had a habit of cruising the humbler racing shops, encouraging drivers who hadn't made it yet. With a $3,000 stake from Earnhardt and a car assembled from borrowed parts. Irvan finished eighth at Charlotte in the fall 500-miler of 1987. From there he worked his way upward through the smaller NASCAR teams. He eventually caught on with a strong one, Morgan-McClure, and in 1990 he finally won a major race, in Bristol, Tenn.
In the Daytona 500 of 1991, Irvan flashed past Earnhardt and Allison in the late laps and breezed to victory after the two stars wrecked each other while scrambling to catch him. But that spring Irvan lost the respect of his peers, who were furious at his wild driving. He recalls, "I knew it was going to come crashing down on me sooner or later. You've got to be accepted in this sport. If you're not, you're going to get shuffled out."
That summer at Talladega, Irvan did something unheard-of in NASCAR. He stood up before a drivers' meeting, apologized and promised to do better. He was wrecked in the race that day—possibly a final payback—but after that he became an advocate of sane driving.
In midseason of 1993, Allison's death in a helicopter crash left the Yates team without a driver. Tragedy gave Irvan his dream ride. To a grieving team Irvan's cool, cheerful demeanor was "super-good medicine," says crew chief Larry McReynolds. By this past summer Irvan was earning well over $1 million a year. He had won five races for Yates (bringing his career total to 12) and was only 27 points behind Earnhardt in the '94 championship standings—so close that the Michigan race could have given Irvan the lead.
And then wham!
Kim and Jordan were at the track, in the Irvans' luxury motor home. "What upset me most," Kim recalls of the minutes after the crash, "was that nobody would tell me whether Ernie was alive or not."
That was because, Yates recalls, "I had been told by one of the emergency workers that Ernie didn't make it." At the hospital Kim and Yates learned that Ernie was alive. "Then," says Kim, "the doctors came out and told me he had a 10 percent chance to live. That floored me." For the next five days she slept a total of nine hours, in a chair with her head resting on Ernie's bed. "I was begging, pleading with God," she says. "I was desperate."
A 1989 graduate of UNC Charlotte, with a degree in psychology, Kim had known little and cared less about racing until she met Ernie in 1991. "She'd always thought racers were a bunch of rednecks," Ernie says. "Then she learned that they really are."
In November 1992 they were married. The very next season Kim received a horrific baptism into Ernie's world. "On my birthday, April 1, Alan Kulwicki got killed," she says. The 1992 Winston Cup champion died when his private plane crashed at an airport outside Bristol only minutes after the Irvans' plane had landed there. Then, in July, Allison's helicopter crashed. Kim became terrified of the light-aircraft travel so necessary to NASCAR stars. But the fatalities, having occurred off the track, did not increase her usual worries about Ernie.
Then last February, Bonnett and Orr were killed in separate crashes at Daytona. Still, Kim says, "you come up with all kinds of reasons: Maybe he shouldn't have been racing [Bonnett had returned to driving after a serious head injury], or maybe his equipment didn't hold up.
"I just didn't think it could happen to us," she says, her voice cracking and her eyes misting as she adds, "this way."
"With most of the racers," says Ernie, "it's always been, 'Ahh! It ain't gonna happen to me.' But my wreck changed a lot of them. Everybody was, 'Wow! It happened in one of the best-prepared cars, to one of the best teams.' It hit home."
On that August morning Irvan exited Turn 2 at Michigan at a speed near his previous lap average of 178 mph. When the tire failed, the car clipped the wall at an angle and then slapped it broadside on the passenger side. The inertia of Irvan's body inside the car, a deadly "G-spike" from left to right, did the damage. In what is called deceleration syndrome, the brain and internal organs were jerked around inside Irvan's body with terrible force.
Yates believes that Irvan's injuries were preventable. "We could just bet that it was going to happen," he says angrily. "It started at Daytona [the beginning of this season], and it hasn't stopped." "It" is a tire war between two manufacturers, Goodyear and Hoosier, that have been embroiled in a season-long contest to make faster tires. Faster tires means softer compounds; softer means more fragile and therefore more dangerous.
No one knows precisely what happened that morning to Irvan's tire, a Goodyear. But Yates doesn't blame the manufacturer, NASCAR's longtime supplier. Rather, he blames NASCAR for allowing the tire war to compromise safety margins. Most racers believe that the sport would be safer if one tire manufacturer retained the monopoly that Goodyear used to enjoy. In addition, rapid advances in technology have resulted in tires that are wider than current wheels were designed for. These tires' extraordinary adhesion makes for nearly flat-out cornering. Add centrifugal stress to that precarious fit, and "it could literally jerk the tire right off the wheel," says Yates.
He also believes that unrestricted horsepower may have contributed to Irvan's crash. "That particular engine was 730 horsepower," Yates says. "We didn't have to go to Michigan with 730 horsepower. But we did if we wanted to be competitive." Yates suggests a maximum of 600 hp for all cars.
Finally, Yates says that Winston Cup cars, which are required to weigh a monstrous 3,500 pounds (Indy Cars weigh only 1,550), are so rigid, especially on their sides, that crash energy isn't dissipated enough before it reaches the driver. The cars do absorb some energy at the front and the rear, Yates says, and "if the car had gone nose first into the wall or backed into it, Ernie would have walked away and been fine." Yates has pleaded with NASCAR for more energy-absorption measures—perhaps inflated air bags—on both the left and right sides. A respected voice in the NASCAR ranks, Yates is determined that Irvan's injury not be in vain.
Kim can do little but hope that others pay heed. "I don't hate racing," she says. "But I hope they'll learn from this. I don't know anything about the technology. But I hope the people who do know will make it better."
For now both Yates and Kim want Ernie to relax, to enjoy his family and his farm. He is still being paid by the Yates team, and he goes to races at his leisure, offering advice to Kenny Wallace, who has been hired to drive in his stead. Financially the Irvans will be O.K. Life is good—no, miraculous.
And yet it's not enough. So often has Irvan been at the head of the pack, that runaway freight train of a drafting line, that he cannot leave it behind. "I hope," he says, "I get back soon enough that people will remember me."
In the WFO world of NASCAR, that is a very real concern.