It was the nearest thing to a miracle comeback in the history of NASCAR racing, a sport that has had its share of drivers returning from spectacular wrecks. But Ernie Irvan set a new standard on Sunday. Thirteen months and 11 days after a horrific crash at Michigan International Speedway, where doctors had given him a 10% chance of surviving severe head and lung injuries, Irvan climbed back into a Winston Cup stock car for the Holly Farms 400 at the North Wilkesboro ( N.C.) Speedway and drove with the same easy-lightning style as he had before. He actually led the race for 31 laps, and when it was over and Irvan had finished sixth, he climbed out and said with a no-sweat shrug, "It felt as if I'd been doing it last week."
It wasn't that easy, of course. Irvan had undergone hundreds of hours of physical rehabilitation in his comeback, and he still has to drive with a patch over his left eye to eliminate the double vision he continues to suffer. That condition is what caused some other drivers to privately express reservations about Irvan's return. They feared that Irvan's depth perception and his peripheral vision, both crucial to racing drivers, might be impaired and might jeopardize their own safety as well as Irvan's.
But, according to Irvan, in the past year his right eye has compensated for his depth-perception impairment, and he relies on team spotters—as all NASCAR drivers now do—for radio advice on traffic coming up on either side of his car. He made no discernible mistakes Sunday, even in tight situations on the little five-eighths-of-a-mile oval track that was considered a safer place for his return than the faster super-speedways on the tour.
"It's amazing how, through such a physical trauma, a gift like Ernie's skill for racing can persist," said Errol Erlandson, an Ann Arbor, Mich., vascular surgeon who had helped save Irvan's life last year and who was at North Wilkesboro to witness his comeback. "Given the severity of the injuries that we saw, the X-rays, the physiologic testing at the time, I certainly would never have said this would happen. I would have been truly grateful if Ernie could have driven his wife and daughter around town. It leads me to think we don't know a great deal about what goes on in the mind and the body."
The doctors have even told the 36-year-old Irvan that surgery, possibly by next summer, could correct his double vision and allow him to race without the eye patch. For now, though, he pronounced himself more than happy with his comeback. "I think we answered a lot of questions today," Irvan said on Sunday. "It answered a lot of my questions too. I didn't know if I could do it."
Irvan had driven in several private test sessions this summer but hadn't proved himself in heavy traffic under race conditions until last Saturday, when he started second in a 150-mile NASCAR SuperTrucks race and led for 24 laps before falling out with suspension problems. With that appearance under his belt, he returned to the major leagues of his sport the next afternoon.
"Ernie has been ready for a while, and he proved that today," said his best friend among NASCAR drivers, Mark Martin, who won Sunday's race.
Irvan showed no signs of fatigue after 400 laps of close-quarter racing. "Everybody has asked, 'Why do you want to come back after the trauma you went through?' " he said. "This is why. This was a ball. Racing is all I've done, all my life. I started driving a go-kart when I was eight."
Said Martin, relating to his friend's decision, "A racer's greatest fear is not perishing in one of these race cars. It's being injured and having to watch someone else drive his car."