Bill Weber
Formula One
 Saturday, July 8
Tragic encore takes Irwin's life
By Bill Weber
Special to

 LOUDON, N.H. -- It was certainly a dark and difficult day here at New Hampshire International Speedway for everyone involved in the New England 300. Not just the driver and the crews, but for the fans and everyone who travels with NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Kenny Irwin
A truck hauls away the wrecked car of Kenny Irwin, who died Friday following a crash in practice for the New England 300.

Fourty-five teams came here to Loudon prepared to qualify and then race on Sunday, but they lost one of their competitors late Friday morning -- 30-year-old Kenny Irwin.

Irwin was a star in the sprints. He was a star in the midgets. He was rookie of the year in the NASCAR Craftsman Trucks Series. He made 87 starts in the Winston Cup Series and was looking to make his 88th here in Loudon on Sunday.

But something went terribly wrong during his early laps Friday morning in practice. His car hit the wall, rolled over, and Irwin lost his life.

But the day continued. And that meant practice continued and qualifying was held a few hours after Irwin was killed. It was a day, however, when drivers and race teams had to put on blinders, and had to sharpen their focus. They had a job to do, even though they didn't want to do it.

Irwin was a fierce competitor, still really trying to make his mark in the Winston Cup Series. Irwin's death was a fresh reminder of how dangerous this sport can be, but how determined these drivers have to be in their chosen profession.

Adam Petty, 19, was killed at New Hampshire International Speedway on May 12 in another terrible incident in Turn 3.

There is plenty of speculation over Friday's accident, but it's very similar to the speculation that surrounded Petty's death two months ago -- that the throttle hung on Irwin's car. While there is no evidence of that happening to Petty's car, what happened Friday was very similar judging from the skid marks and talking to drivers who were on the track.

One thing you have to remember about New Hampshire International Speedway is that it's a one-mile flat track. And the speeds here are very deceiving. These guys are really flying around here.

Drivers go down a very long backstretch and then into Turn 3. There is a little bump as they get into the turn, but there is not anything particularly difficult about that turn. The skid marks on the track and on the wall apparently indicate the throttle may have hung up in Irwin's No. 42 Chevrolet.

There are two situations drivers are frightened of. The first one is fire. And a close second is a hung throttle. And that's something teams work very hard to make sure never happens.

Now, to you and me, a hung throttle would be like driving down the highway and then turning onto an curved exit ramp too fast. All of a sudden there is that brief moment of panic when you realize your speed is in excess of conditions. Hopefully we get on the brakes and slow down our car. But, because of the speed, momentum and narrow width of a racetrack, a driver really doesn't have that opportunity.

Also, NHIS is a flat track with the groove down low. There is a lot of room between that groove and the wall. Usually, with a hung throttle, there is no room to slow the cars down and the space between the groove and the wall just increases the speed of the car. And one thing about speed at these race tracks is television doesn't convey it very well. Unless you've been to New Hampshire, or even Martinsville, you can't understand the true speed these drivers are traveling.

Rusty Wallace won the pole at over 132 mph on Friday, which means he's going much faster than that down the backstretch. Who knows what the speed is going into Turn 3. However, Irwin hit with brutal force, the car turned on its side and then rolled over.

I talked with Mark Martin's crew this morning and they have one crewman who's job is designated to make sure the throttle is loose below the air cleaner so it doesn't get hung up. He checked it three times before Martin went out for his qualifying run Friday.

After a tragedy like this, teams must go out and do their jobs. And after qualifying, drivers and crews were very willing to talk about Irwin and this tragic situation.

There are two things that always happen when we go through something like Friday morning. All parties involved, from fans to NASCAR officials, want to find out what happened. And everyone wants to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I believe talk will grow about foam walls at some of these wrecks. Jimmie Johnson's wreck a couple of weeks ago at Watkins Glen was a perfect example of how those foam walls used at the road course may be able to help in this type of incident.

So, again, we want to find out exactly what happened, which NASCAR will do its best to accomplish. Then NASCAR will take input from drivers, and do research on their own, to best prevent this type of tragedy from happening again.

Tragedy strikes twice: Irwin dies in Loudon crash

User mail: Fans remember Kenny Irwin