Driver Irvan is critical after crash

August 21, 1994|By Liz Clarke and Tom Higgins | Liz Clarke and Tom Higgins,Knight-Ridder News Service

YPSILANTI, Mich. -- NASCAR driver Ernie Irvan remained in critical condition and on life support last night, still unconscious from a violent crash in practice that fractured his skull and caused major damage to his brain and lungs.

Irvan crashed nearly head-on into the wall while practicing for the GM Goodwrench Dealers 400 at Michigan International Speedway. The Winston Cup Series race is scheduled for today at 12:30 p.m.

Driver Ted Musgrave, following about 10 car lengths behind Irvan, said the right front tire appeared to go down on Irvan's black Ford, causing the crash.

Emergency personnel knew immediately that Irvan, 35, was badly hurt. A helicopter ambulance assigned to the speedway 60 miles southwest of Detroit was called to the crash site from its pad near the infield infirmary. Irvan, bloodied from his injuries, was placed in the aircraft and taken to St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ypsilanti. He arrived at 9:20 a.m. and was in the emergency room until noon.

As doctors struggled to control the swelling in his brain, Irvan's family kept a private vigil in the intensive-care unit at the hospital.

Drivers and car owners slipped in side doors to convey their concern throughout the day.

And race fans across the country prayed, as has become custom in this sport that seems to keep claiming its young.

Irvan was running practice laps at 160 to 170 mph early yesterday at Michigan International Speedway when his Ford suddenly slowed, then headed straight into a concrete retaining wall as it exited Turn 2, according to drivers on the track.

The single-car crash occurred about 8:40 a.m.

"I was exiting pit road and getting up to speed as I saw Ernie and a couple other guys go by," Musgrave said. "I figured that would be a good group to get into. I came up on the track maybe 10 car lengths back.

"As Ernie exited Turn 2, he headed straight to the wall. I saw the right front dip down like he may have cut a tire. He locked up the brakes and turned a little to the left. But with the right front flat, his car just went straight. It hit hard on the right front corner. His car impacted the wall and stayed against it. He probably went 150 feet along the wall. It was a hard hit."

Ricky Rudd's crew chief, Bill Ingle, watched the single-car wreck develop and has a slightly different version from Musgrave.

"Ricky and Ernie had been running nose to tail; then Ernie dropped off a bit. It looked like Ernie then went straight into the wall without scrubbing any speed off at all. The car went up on its left side so high I could see the star on the hood [the logo of the Irvan/Yates team's sponsor, Texaco]. I knew it was a violent hit."

Irvan's brain and lungs suffered the brunt of the blow, Dr. Errol Erlandson said.

His skull was fractured at its base, and his brain and brain stem suffered severe swelling, Dr. Erlandson said.

Irvan's face and lungs were also severely bruised in the crash. He was breathing only with help of a respirator.

Asked to assess Irvan's chances of survival, Dr. Erlandson said: "He has received some severe injuries to two major systems, either one of which in their severity as assessed at this time could be fatal. In this business, I believe the prognosis cannot be stated. . . . We trust with minute-to-minute . . . support, the best outcome will occur. I cannot predict."

Brian VanDercook, a spokesman for the race team, said Irvan's toughness should not be underestimated.

"He's a fighter and rarely is bothered by the fact that he's got difficult odds," VanDercook said.

"Whenever he's qualifying and somebody ahead of him makes a really fast time, instead of being discouraged, he looks at it as, 'Hey, well now I know it can be done.' "

NASCAR has left Irvan's car listed in the official lineup for today's race, but it was uncertain last night whether car owner Robert Yates and crew chief Larry McReynolds would put another driver in the car.

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