Drivers Look Down Lonely Road on Safety in Face of Irvan Wreck, Racers Still Accept Risks

Article excerpt

Rusty Wallace made an impassioned plea to his fellow drivers in February, begging for caution because the first race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season had yet to be run and two drivers already were dead.

"My wife is scared to death every time I go out there," Wallace, a former St. Louisan, said during a meeting that preceded the Daytona 500. "I'm tired of losing my friends . . ."

On Saturday, he almost lost another one when Ernie Irvan - like Wallace a major star on stock car racing's premier circuit - sustained life-threatening injuries in a crash during practice at Michigan International Speedway.

Irvan, 35, remained on life support and in critical condition Sunday.

Three major stars, and four drivers overall on the circuit, have died in the last 16 months. Gone are Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and Neil Bonnett - who combined to win 42 races - and rookie Rodney Orr. The latter was killed the day Bonnett was buried, Feb. 14.

Kulwicki and Allison, whose team wound up hiring Irvan, died in off-the-track aviation accidents. Bonnett - attempting a comeback from a host of injuries - and Orr died while practicing for the Daytona 500.

Starting with Kulwicki's death in April 1993, six drivers are gone from the major leagues of auto racing. Formula One lost its marquee driver - Aryton Senna - in the Grand Prix of San Marino last spring, just a day after Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger died during practice at the track in Imola, Italy.

Of the three largest racing circuits in the world, only Indy-car has not lost a driver this year.

Yet little will change because drivers accept the risk of death or serious injury each time they take the track.

"It's the old Catch-22 of this business," driver Lake Speed said. "You've got to run on the ragged edge but try not to get over it."

Kyle Petty said drivers first pay their respects to the injured or dead, then try to learn "what happened to the car."

"Was it the seat belt? Was it the seat?" Petty asked during an interview Saturday. "We want to know."

Although he calls Winston Cup the safest form of racing in the world, Petty admits all drivers can hope for are more safety improvements.

"It's not a safe sport, nobody ever said it was a safe sport," he explained. "All you can do is make it as safe as you can under the parameters that you work under."

Ironically, Irvan, a hard-charger who overcame a bad habit of wrecking himself and others during his formative years on the circuit, had changed his approach - especially since replacing the deceased Allison late last year.

Irvan's recent on-track demeanor belied the reputation he earned for rough driving. He once apologized to his fellow drivers on national television. …