Memories and questions haunt Winston Cup's return to New Hampshire for today's race.
By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
LOUDON, N.H. -- Something reminds him every day.
It's usually a conversation.
Thursday it was an envelope of photographs from Indianapolis that sparked thoughts of Kenny Irwin. Felix Sabates sold Irwin the Harley-Davidson in the pictures.
"The bike was beautiful, painted black with chrome and silver," Sabates said. "Kenny had taken the bike to a shop to get it customized."
Irwin never got to ride it.
Days after he paid Sabates for the bike as the two sat at a bar in North Carolina, Irwin died in a crash during a practice session July 7 at New Hampshire International Speedway.
"Kenny's father went ahead and finished customizing it," said Sabates, Irwin's car owner, "and sent me the pictures."
With NASCAR back at the 1.058-mile track for the Dura Lube 300 today, those who knew Irwin best are still struggling with his death.
"I think about him every time I work on the car," said Jay Smith, assistant crew chief. "The more you think about it, the worse it is. But it's kind of like you just have got to go on with life."
Smith and his fellow crew members have worked tirelessly this weekend to prepare a car in the toughest conditions.
Their trailer is parked beside the infield hospital where Irwin was taken after being pulled from the wreckage. The sliding doors in the back of the trailer open to a clear view of the Turn 3 wall.
"Probably the first thing when you go through that gate (in the garage), you remember the last time you were up here and what happened," Smith said. "It was the last time we saw him before he got killed. We were thinking last time that we were here we could've won the race. The last time we left, we had lost somebody."
Sabates chose not to attend today's race.
"I might go play golf or something," he said. "I'm not even going to watch the race."
On the morning Irwin was killed, Sabates was in Charlotte, N.C., with Chip Ganassi. They were preparing to sign papers giving Ganassi ownership of Sabates' two-car operation, Team SABCO.
Sabates got word there had been a wreck involving Irwin's car.
He went into his office and called the NASCAR trailer in New Hampshire. Sabates spoke with Winston Cup director of competition Gary Nelson.
They talked once more before Nelson asked Sabates to find Irwin's parents.
"I knew when he told me that, it was not good," Sabates said. "My knees got very weak."
For the next 30 minutes, Sabates sat silent.
He tried to find the right words.
"I didn't want to make that phone call," Sabates said. "I mean, his mother, the first question out of her mouth to me was, "Was anybody else hurt?' It tells you the mentality of people in racing because she was concerned that somebody else had been hurt."
Irwin was in his third full season in Winston Cup.
Peers viewed him as an intense and promising driver.
"It took me two or three months to get him to open up to me," Sabates said. "Kenny was very quiet. If you didn't know him, and I didn't know him at all, he was pretty much of an introvert."
An accomplished sprint car driver, Irwin's first Winston Cup job was with the No. 28 Ford owned by Robert Yates. He stayed with the team until the end of last season.
In his 87-race career, Irwin was the 1998 Rookie of the Year, won three pole positions and finished third in the Daytona 500 last season.
Irwin was 28th in the points standings with one top-five finish at the time of his death. "I think he was about one step away from being great," Sabates said. "I think all that Kenny needed was one win to learn, to show him that he could win and he was on his way out of here. ... We were very close to doing that, and tragedy happened."
Two months after his death, NASCAR still is unable to pinpoint the cause of the wreck. The uncertainty bothers Sabates.
"It makes me feel terrible that I don't know what happened," he said. "I wish I knew, but I don't."
Without a reliable solution to stuck accelerators -- the problem believed to have caused Irwin's fatal accident and that of Adam Petty on May 12 at New Hampshire -- NASCAR is requiring restrictor plates this weekend.
"Yes, it took two lives for NASCAR to work on safety, but it's very difficult for NASCAR to anticipate every single possibility of disaster," Sabates said. "If they were going to think of every possible way that somebody could get hurt, we wouldn't have racing today. The cars wouldn't look like cars."
Both Team SABCO entries qualified Saturday for the Dura Lube 300. Sterling Marlin, driver of the No. 40 Chevrolet, qualified third, and Ted Musgrave was 11th in the No. 01.
Marlin said a busy week trying to prepare equipment after the restrictor plate ruling kept the team from dwelling on emotions.
"We've thought about it," Marlin said. "The deal with the restrictor plates coming and everybody's really been working, maybe it's a distraction to keep it off your mind. So the guys want to come here and run good. We qualified good, both cars. It would be neat to win the race. It would be a good tribute to Kenny."
Tony Stewart plans his own tribute to Irwin. The two had a handful of on-track run-ins, but they respected each other.
The helmet Stewart will wear today is a replica of the one Irwin wore the day he died.
"I'm glad I'm not forgetting Kenny," Stewart said. "He was the first thing that I thought of when I pulled in here (Thursday) and I think that's good. I miss him already.
"There is not that one guy out there every Sunday that I sit there and say, "That's the guy I want to beat every week.' You want to beat everybody, but there was always something special about racing with Kenny."
12:30 p.m. today, New Hampshire International Speedway (Loudon). TV/RADIO: TNN, WAMR-AM 1320.
POLE: Bobby Labonte.