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
"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
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
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
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
"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. …