Last Saturday, Ernie Irvan, one of the best drivers, in one of the best-prepared cars, on one of the safest tracks on the NASCAR tour, became the latest victim in a tragic year for auto racing. At week's end Irvan was still on life support in an Ypsilanti, Mich., hospital with massive head and chest injuries, after a near head-on crash into the wall during practice at Michigan International Speedway.
His accident further disproved the notion held in some quarters that the stock car circuit is the sport's safest. Last February veteran driver Neil Bonnett and rookie Rodney Orr died of injuries suffered in crashes at Daytona International Speedway. In August 1992 Clifford Allison died after crashing at Michigan. Allison's father, Bobby, has never recovered completely from injuries suffered at Pocono International Speedway in 1988. Grant Adcox died of injuries suffered in a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Rick Baldwin has been comatose since a crash at Michigan in 1986.
Irvan, who lost control after hitting a piece of debris and blowing a tire, was apparently a victim of "deceleration syndrome." When a driver is moving at 170 to 180 mph, as Irvan was, and then is brought to a sudden stop, his head and neck can suffer severe trauma from flopping violently about, even as his body is restrained by the safety harness.
While stock cars don't travel as fast as their Indy and Formula One counterparts, at 3,500 pounds they weigh twice as much as Indy Cars and three times as much as F/1 cars. Further, they are far more rigid than the open-wheeled Indy and F/1 racers, which break apart on impact, dissipating much of the energy of a crash before it reaches the driver's body. NASCAR's commitment to heavy, rigid cars might be precisely the source of its seemingly insoluble problem—more driver vulnerability to deceleration syndrome than in Formula One or Indy Cars.