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Irvan Returns to Racing After Near-Fatal Crash

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1995

MARTINSVILLE, VA. -- Ernie Irvan does not remember Aug. 20, 1994, at least not much beyond his breakfast that morning. He has no recollection of hitting Turn 2 at the Michigan International Speedway, of his Winston Cup car crashing into the wall at a speed upward of 170 mph. He does not remember the ambulance drivers, or the emergency room workers at St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital, or the doctor who walked away from his bed and went to tell his family, quietly, that there was only a 10 percent chance Irvan would live.

For Irvan, this loss of memory is a blessing. It is why he can strap himself into another stock car this weekend and enter another race on the Winston Cup circuit, his first since his terrifying wreck just over one year ago. Irvan will race twice in North Wilkesboro, N.C., this weekend. First he'll compete in Saturday's 150-lap SuperTruck race, a new classification on the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing circuit this season. Then he'll start from the seventh spot in Sunday's Holly Farms 400, driving the Texaco/Havoline car owned by his sponsor, a car nearly identical to the one that once brought him a whisper away from death.

Today, he is stronger and more fit than he was before the accident, but he will race with a patch over his left eye, the one with the sleepy lid and fuzzy vision, the one that left him with a depth perception problem initially so severe he could not pick up a glass. Irvan does not expect that to be a problem, not after countless practice runs that have him expertly attuned to the distances between his and other cars on the track.

And he does not expect emotion to be a factor -- Irvan is insistent that there will be no flashbacks, no sharp pangs of concern, not even a tiny tremor of fear. What he expects is to be exhilarated. What he expects is to feel, once again, that perfect symbiosis between his body and the race car, a connection so visceral that no amount of danger could keep him from getting back on the track.

"Ernie's like most race car drivers," said Mark Martin, Irvan's closest friend on the circuit. "The biggest fear is not {of} being killed, it's of getting injured and having to sit out and watch and know you can't do it anymore. That's what drivers are afraid of. That's the only thing that would scare him."

King of the Road

To understand Ernie Irvan, one has to understand that he was the best at what he does on the day he crashed that car into the wall at the racetrack in Brooklyn, Mich. He had the most points of any driver on the Winston Cup circuit, was leading in the standings, and had the most laps and the most finishes in the top five and the most of everything that mattered in his business. At age 35, he was the king. And it meant the world to him.

"People don't realize when they look at us that what we do is what we are," Martin said. "It's our life. It's what Ernie's known since he was a kid. He lost a huge piece of life sitting on the sidelines like he has."

Irvan puts it more succinctly: "This is what I do. And to have what happened, happen -- that was hard."

The accident occurred during a practice lap, in the early morning. Irvan's right front tire blew, and he lost control of the car, which did not appear to be too badly damaged after the impact. Those watching were shocked by the extent of his injuries -- his skull was cracked "like an eggshell," the doctors later told him, and he had severely bruised lungs that were filling with fluid.

"It was so scary," Martin said. "It just leaves you in a daze. You can't believe something like that has happened and all. So few people are injured in this sport, and even fewer of the most skilled and experienced drivers like him."

In the world that is NASCAR, Martin and Irvan were not just fellow drivers but neighbors -- each week they would park their motor homes next to each other on the infield, and Kim Irvan and Arlene Martin would visit while they watched Jordan, the Irvans' now 2-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old Matt Martin. In this world, it's a steadfast rule that wives never mention fears of a crash to their husbands, and Arlene followed that rule faithfully in the aftermath of the accident, no matter how afraid she was.

"She never looked at me in the middle of the night and said something about it," Martin said. "Not once."

Martin doubled his disability insurance in the weeks after the accident, and made several visits to his friend. It was hard, though, to see Irvan in a hospital bed, rather than at the racetrack. The sight of Irvan in his driver's uniform last weekend was the best sight Martin had seen in a very, very long time.

"I just see it as a relief," Martin said. "Like he's back where he should be, where he belongs. The way I see it, things are right now. When I see him race, I don't remember the accident and all that, I don't think about it all."

A Wife's Anguish

Kim Irvan remembers, right down to the last, intricate detail. How could she forget? She was standing there, watching with the others, when her husband's car banged into the wall.

She remembers that the doctors had done their best to clean him up, to get rid of a lot of the blood, before they allowed her to see him. And she remembers stopping just inside the emergency room door and peering across a seemingly endless stretch of floor at her husband, her body reeling at the sight.

"I couldn't believe it was him," Kim said. "Later, after he stabilized, they wouldn't let me go see him for a long time, but finally they did. He had 14 tubes in him. They seemed like they were coming out of everywhere. I wasn't ready for that."

She was stronger than she thought. A petite woman with soft eyes and a gentle smile, Kim held the family together, according to her husband, who still marvels and how she took care of him and Jordan, and never seemed to unravel, no matter how terrible things got.

"I had the easy part in a lot of ways," Ernie said. "My wife is the one who had everything to worry about and everything to take care of."

It takes a certain breed of man to be a stock car driver, and it takes a certain type of woman to share that kind of life. Long before the accident, Kim had stopped worrying about the risks and the danger. She remembers thinking about Liz Allison, the wife of the late driver Davey Allison, when she saw television reports that Davey -- who also drove for Robert Yates racing, Irvan's sponsor -- was killed in a helicopter crash in 1993. Even then, though, she had a hard time imagining that something like that could happen to her.

"You get immune to it all after a while," she said. "You have to. If every time you went out there, you were a bundle of nerves, well, you just can't live like that. But when it happens to you . . ."

When it happens to you, it changes everything, and it also changes nothing at all. Kim understands that. She never will feel the same about watching her husband race, and yet she knows that their lives must go back to the old routine, to the motor home trips from racetrack to racetrack, to the only lifestyle that makes her husband feel whole.

From the first day, she firmly has supported Ernie's desire to return to racing. Still, she put off thinking about how she really would feel when it happened, in what she calls her ultimate act of "procrastination."

But it all hit her last week, two days before Irvan was scheduled to race in the SuperTruck division in Martinsville, Va., -- a race he never ran after rain washed out the qualifying round and he did not have the necessary season point totals to earn a position. Kim made plans to drive from Charlotte to Martinsville on Friday with Laura McReynolds, the crew chief's wife, because she could not bear to make the drive alone. And on the night before she departed, she telephoned her husband in his hotel room in Eden, N.C., and confessed her fears.

"She was so upset," said Irvan, who still was thrown by the conversation nearly 24 hours later. "She had never said anything like that to me before."

That night, Kim told Ernie about her nightmares -- not ones at night, but the daytime flashbacks: the car hitting the wall, the sight of him in the hospital, the agonizing wait to see if he would survive. "You didn't see what I saw," she told him. "You don't know what it's like."

"Maybe that's good, though," Kim acknowledged two days later, when she seemed laughingly nervous, but much better prepared for the emotions of Ernie's return. "Maybe if he knew, he wouldn't have the nerve. . . . It's okay if I only halfway believe it when I say I want him to do this, but he has to believe 100 percent. Because I don't want him getting into that car if he doesn't feel that way."

'I Want to Race'

Not once has Irvan thought about giving up racing. That would be unfathomable to him. The day he woke from his coma, his first garbled words to his wife were "I want to race. I want to race." He kept insisting, again and again, that he would return.

He was still unconscious when the hospital staff first tuned his bedside television to the NASCAR coverage on ESPN, the roar of the cars on the track echoing in the room. Later in his hospital stay, Irvan remembers brief sounds from the running of a race in Bristol, Tenn. There are pictures, quick snapshots, of another race in Richmond, which he watched as his mind drifted, concentration an impossibility.

The drive to return has obsessed him, and the long duration of his absence nearly has driven him nuts. Initially, he thought he would be able to return to racing in late May, and started making plans. Then his doctors told him he would need surgery for an aneurysm below his brain. He asked how long that would hold him back. They said three months. He was stunned.

"Three months? I heard that and I couldn't believe it," Irvan said. "I was ready to go. I've been ready to go forever."

Then he had to wait for clearance not just from his doctors, but also NASCAR officials, who understandably were concerned about vision problems and what risks he might pose not only to himself, but to others on the track. Every day he would phone and ask if there was a decision. And every day Kim would wince when he hung up.

"I got to be pretty awful around our house," she said. "You want to know about high-stress situations? That was about as high as it gets."

And though she fears the moment when he finally enters that race car, Kim was as disappointed as Ernie when he was bounced from the race last weekend. She joked about having to sleep in the barn with her racehorses until they departed for North Wilkesboro this weekend to give it another shot.

But it was sunny and beautiful when Irvan and his crew arrived at North Wilkesboro Speedway. His practice laps, in both the SuperTruck and the Winston Cup car, have been "better than we even expected," according to Brian VanDercook, the media representative for the Yates team. And so save for another "act of God," as Irvan described last weekend's weather problems, his moment finally has come.

"Until I line up and I'm actually in that race, the comeback won't be done," Irvan said. "That's when . . ."

His words trailed off then, his attention captured by an elderly man seeking an autograph. But he did not need to finish the sentence. The conclusion is obvious: That's when he'll feel whole.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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