Irwin killed at N.H. track

Driver, 30, crashes just yards from site of Adam Petty's death

July 08, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

New Hampshire International Speedway was the site of another racing death yesterday.

This time, it was Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin, 30, who was killed in a "horrendous" crash during practice for qualifying for tomorrow's New England 300 at the Loudon, N.H., race track.

The accident occurred not more than a few yards from the spot where Busch Series driver Adam Petty, stock car racing's first fourth-generation driver, hit the wall May 12 and died shortly thereafter of head trauma.

Yesterday's incident stunned the motor-racing community, which took several hours to compose itself before answering questions and issuing statements.

Irwin was entering the third turn when his Team SABCO Chevrolet smashed hard into the wall, flipped onto its roof and ended up a crumpled, tangled mass of metal.

Irwin was first taken to the infield medical center and then transported to Concord Hospital, where spokesperson Jennifer Dearborn said the driver died of "multiple injuries."

"On behalf of everyone at Team SABCO, we want to express our sincere sympathy to Kenny Irwin's mother, father, sisters and relatives," said an official statement from team owner Felix Sabates. "Kenny was a great teammate and wonderful friend and we will miss him terribly."

Sabates also told his No. 40 team of driver Sterling Marlin to close up shop for the day, adding that "because our hearts will be elsewhere this weekend," he and sponsor BellSouth had decided to withdraw from the weekend's activities at the track.

Irwin, blessed with a boyish face, curly blond hair and crystal blue eyes, came to Winston Cup racing via the U.S. Auto Club midget and sprint car circuits and NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series. He captured Rookie of the Year honors in each of those series, and then pursued an opening on the Robert Yates Winston Cup team.

He called Yates so many times the car owner finally had no choice but to hire him.

"If Kenny is as big a thorn in the side of his competitors on the race track as he has been to me over the last several months, everyone will just move out of his way," Yates said the day he hired Irwin three years ago.

Irwin, a native of Indianapolis who lived in Charlotte, N.C., won the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year title in 1998 but after that found the going more difficult than he'd ever though it would be. Still, his enthusiasm never waned.

"This is so much bigger than I ever imagined," he said not long ago on a visit to Baltimore. "I wanted to be here, in Winston Cup racing, so bad, and I wouldn't change anything."

After two years with Yates, Irwin moved to the Sabates team this season. His best finish this year was a fourth place in the DieHard 500 in Talladega, Ala., in mid-April.

Yesterday, NASCAR president Bill France, who is ill with cancer, issued a statement speaking of the sadness he and the rest of the NASCAR community feels.

"Kenny was a fine competitor and will be missed very much by all of us," France said.

Richard Petty, the sport's first seven-time champion, who has lost his grandson and his father over the past 13 weeks, said the entire Petty family sends its sympathy and prayers to the Irwins.

But he also described the circumstances connecting Adam's death and Irwin's as coincidence.

"Those things are circumstances beyond human control," Petty told the Associated Press. "There ain't nothing the matter with the race track. These guys run these things 200 mph. It is circumstances with the way you stop that thing so quick. Your body just can't stand it."

Ward Burton, a friend of Irwin, had a different view on whether the track was at fault for the two deaths.

"Two means it's a problem," said Burton, who suggested track officials look into improving the banking in the virtually flat third turn. "I think it needs to be addressed."

Professional driver deaths

Some recent drivers who have been killed in sanctioned auto- racing events:

NASCAR:

Kenny Irwin, 2000, Loudon, N.H.

Adam Petty, 2000, Loudon, N.H.

John Nemechek, 1997, Homestead, Fla.

Rodney Orr, 1994, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Neil Bonnett, 1994, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Clifford Allison, 1992, Brooklyn, Mich.

J.D. McDuffie, 1991, Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Grant Adcox, 1989, Hampton, Ga.

CART:

Greg Moore, 1999, Fontana, Calif.

Gonzalo Rodriguez, 1999, Monterey, Calif.

Jeff Krosnoff, 1996, Toronto.

Formula One:

Ayrton Senna, 1994, San Marino GP.

Ricardo Paletti, 1982, Canadian GP.

Gilles Villeneuve, 1982, Belgian GP.

IRL:

Scott Brayton, 1996, Indianapolis.

USAC:

Jovy Marcelo, 1992, Indianapolis.

Gordon Smiley, 1982, Indianapolis.

Swede Savage, 1973, Indianapolis.

The Associated Press

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