"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."