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On THE Mend
Ed Hinton
October 31, 1994
Ten weeks after a crash that nearly killed him, Ernie Irvan is back on his feet and is hoping to race again
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October 31, 1994

On The Mend

Ten weeks after a crash that nearly killed him, Ernie Irvan is back on his feet and is hoping to race again

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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."

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