Changed Irvan Responsible For Team Split

written by Al Pearce - Published on 07/11/97 We may never find the smoking gun that convinced Robert Yates to dump Ernie Irvan after this season of Winston Cup racing. Things like that are oft-times swept under the rug, there to remain for all time. But you can bet the farm that the decision not to renew Irvan's contract has less to do with Ernie Irvan the Racing Driver than with Ernie Irvan the Public Figure. You can't argue with the former. He drove 79 (now 80) races for Robert Yates Racing and won eight of them. In NASCAR's modern era, few drivers have won more than 10 percent of their starts for the same owner. Irvan wan his fourth start with Yates in Martinsville, Va., in September of 1993. He won two weeks later at Charlotte, then three more times in the spring of 1994. He was challenging for the series championship when he almost killed himself in an August crash at Michigan. What followed was one of the most stirring and courageous comebacks in motorsports history. While the NASCAR community held firm and prayed, doctors told Kim Irvan her husband probably wouldn't make it through the night. For most people, racing again wouldn't have been an option. For Irvan, not racing again was never an option. So it was that 14 months later, after dogged rehabilitation, he finished seventh in a race at North Wilkesboro, N.C. He won twice in 1996 and recently won a 400-miler at the track that almost took his life three years ago. Miracle of miracles, thy name is Ernie. But something dark happened on Irvan's way back from death: He lost the impish charm that had made him so likable when he arrived from California in the late '80s. In ways he perhaps never realized, he grew sullen and difficult with sll but his closest friends. At a time when big-time racers are expected to be equal parts driver, sponsor representative, media darling and social glad-handler, he failed at three out of four. Nobody would admit it on the record, but word spread last fall that Texaco, the longtime sponsor of Yates' team, was fed up with its driver's chippy attitude. Among Irvan's failings: He disliked schmoozing with Texaco's corporate customers on race day, an important part of ant driver's job. And there was the brawl that pitted Irvan and his wife against fellow patrons of a Charlotte-area bar on Easter morning. It began when a female patron became angry at Irvan's refusal to dance with her, and quickly escalated into an ugly fight in the parking lot. And as if that didn't irritate Texaco's PR team enough, Irvan displayed his petulance at a gala reception Yates hosted in Charlotte in May to recognize the company's 10 years of support. Everybody who's anybody with Texaco was there from Houston. Dale Jarrett, the other half of Yates' two-driver stable (but not a Texaco driver) greeted guests at the door, posed for pictures, willingly signed autographs, and was the perfect celebrity host. When the program began at 7:30, Irvan was nowhere to be found. Finally, an hour late and clearly unhappy at being there, he strolled in and reluctantly joined Yates, Jarrett, crew chiefs Mark Reno and Todd Parrott, and several Texaco executives on stage. If looks could kill, Yates would have been arrested on the spot. And if his had merely wounded, those from the Texaco people would have finished the job. Ever the gentleman, Yates insisted the decision to cut Irvan loose was his alone. "I've worried and wrestled with it more than a year, and it's not a simple one-word answer," he said. "Attempting to explain it would take longer than it took to make the decision." Then Yates spoke the most telling words of all: "And if you hadn't lived it, you still wouldn't understand." (c) 1997, Daily Press (Newport News, Va). Visit Digital City Hampton Roads, the World Wide Web site of the Daily Press at Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services. AP-NY-07-11-97 0132EDT< By Al Pearce Newport News Daily Press

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