Back on the Fast Track

updated 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

SURE, ERNIE IRVAN HAS THE JITTERS—THE TRACK AT Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of the fastest on the NASCAR circuit. But the stock-car racer looks cool behind the wheel of his sleek black-and-yellow Texaco-Havoline Ford for the start of the Napa 500, the finale of the '95 season. After 30 minutes, Irvan, 36, who started in the 26th spot, has moved up to 10th. "Will you look at that?" yells the track announcer. "The quickest car out there may belong to Ernie Irvan!" Late in the Nov. 12 race, with 105 laps to go, Irvan is in second, a couple of ticks behind Dale Earnhardt. In the end, though, he runs low on fuel and finishes seventh. But from the way his family and friends are carrying on over by his racing van you'd think Irvan was the winner. "Oh, this is gooood!" exults Susan Lewis, 42, Irvan's older sister. "But as far as I'm concerned, Ernie won the race when he walked out of the hospital."

Even Irvan himself, a fierce competitor who would normally have no truck with seventh place, admits to being "real pleased" with this performance—the third race of his amazing comeback. Just 15 months ago, Irvan was in the intensive care ward at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., where doctors gave him only a 10 percent chance of surviving massive injuries to his head, heart and lungs. Irvan was at the peak of his eight-year career—he had consistently ranked one or two in Winston Cup standings that year—when, on the morning of Aug. 20, his right tire failed during a practice run for the Goodwrench 400 at the Michigan International Speedway. He slammed broadside into a concrete retaining wall at 180 miles per hour.

Irvan has watched tapes of his crash, but says he considers himself "real fortunate that I don't remember it"—or the gory aftermath. In that regard, he is luckier than Kim, his wife of three years. Kim was still in bed that morning, curled up with Jordan, their 2-year-old daughter, when Lisa Yates—wife of Robert Yates, the owner of Irvan's racing team—came banging on the door of their motor home. Kim was shocked when she was finally allowed into the hospital's trauma unit. "Ernie was lying there on the stretcher with his uniform in shreds," says Kim. "There was blood everywhere. He looked more dead than alive."

Back in the waiting room, Kim struggled to maintain her composure, as friends and colleagues arrived at the hospital. "But every 20 minutes or so," she says, "I would go off and have a hysterical breakdown." After several hours, the doctors came in to prepare her for the worst. "That's when the reality hit me," says Kim. "The doctors said there was a chance he might make it, if he survived the night."

For nearly two weeks, Irvan lay in a semiconscious state with tubes running in and out of his body. His skull was cracked, his heart was bruised, and one lung was seriously damaged. "He had sustained severe injury to three major organ systems," says Dr. Errol Erlandson, the vascular surgeon who helped save Irvan's life. "He was as severely injured as anyone I've ever seen."

Irvan's admirers rallied behind him. He received 15,000 get-well cards at the hospital, and his fan club fielded another 45,000. For her part, Kim decorated Ernie's room with photographs of his family, his racing team and the prize Paso Fino horses they keep on their 100-acre farm outside Mooresville, N.C. At one point, she slipped Jordan's white tennis shoe into Ernie's right hand. For days it lay there. Then Kim noticed that his hand had closed around it. "I knew then," she says, "that he was coming back."

While Irvan's internal organs healed quickly, his left eye was slow to recover. His depth perception was damaged, a significant problem for a race car driver. "I remember asking the doctors when I could race again, " he says. "They changed the subject."

After several weeks, Irvan was transferred to the Charlotte (N.C.) Institute of Rehabilitation. He could not dress or bathe himself. He had trouble speaking. "I really was not optimistic," says Dr. James McDeavitt, the Institute's medical director. "I thought in the best-case scenario he might someday be able to drive a passenger car."

But Irvan knew better. "I didn't listen to what the doctors tried to tell me," he says. "I wish I knew how and why this recovery happened. But I don't. I prayed all the time. I knew if God would heal my body, I would be able to compete again."

Irvan has raced nearly his whole life. His father, Vic, now 65, owned a wrecking yard in Salinas, Calif., and his mother, Jo, 61, was a homemaker. "I think you take after your dad," says Irvan, who started out at 8 racing in go-carts all over California. "My father was involved in cars."

Ernie didn't even bother to attend his high school graduation ceremony. That night he competed in dirt-track races in Stockton; two days later he raced again in Riverside. He won both races. In the early 1980s he followed his father to Charlotte, where his dad worked on NASCAR cars, and did odd jobs around the track. "I just wanted to be able to race," he says. In 1986, Dale Earnhardt, then the NASCAR champ and always on the lookout for new talent, came by the shop where Irvan was working on his own car and offered to sponsor him. Irvan slowly began his ascent through the standings. By 1994 he and Earnhardt dominated the field. That year Irvan earned more than $1 million in prize money and, before his accident, was ahead in the race for the Winston Cup title, the highest honor in NASCAR racing.

Back in the motor home, after the race in Atlanta, Ernie talks about his comeback. "We cleared a big hurdle today," says Irvan, who wears glasses to correct the defect in his left eye. "It was a matter of getting back to the speed I was at before I got hurt. After today, we won't have to spend the winter wondering what we're going to be able to do. We know it's going to be exactly like it was before I got hurt."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
ROCHELLE JONES in North Carolina, GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta

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