Career-ending injuries can be tough financially, emotionally

Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2003

One option Ernie Irvan never considered immediately after his third serious head injury in a five-year stretch was retirement.

Race drivers are often compared to boxers in not knowing when to throw in the towel.

Irvan's life changed one morning while driving his daughter to school. He was mesmerized by her innocence and playful energy. The moment obliged him to face the facts: he was already living on borrowed time and his family needed him.

''From that moment on I said, 'This is something that I treasure. I don't want to retire, but I knew that it's the smart thing to do.' "

So with tears in his eyes, he walked away, like so many drivers before him. Gone were the Sunday afternoons of ear-shattering engines, the consuming attention and staggering fortunes, replaced by PTA meetings, yard work and lingering doubt.

''The hardest part,'' said Bobby Allison, whose racing career also was cut short by a serious crash, ''is quitting on somebody else's terms. That's hard to take.''

Some take it better than others. But most agree the sudden shift from racing's fast lane to the sidelines is one that places burdens on emotions.

And finances.

Unlike other professional sports, the NASCAR series does not take care of its own. The sport recently created a $500,000 ''catastrophic'' insurance policy, but it accepts no responsibility, financial or otherwise, when a driver gets seriously injured in a crash.

''Our drivers and race teams are independent contractors,'' said Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president.

That makes insurance, disability and retirement plans the responsibility of the driver. For some, that's not enough.

Allison's career ended on the first lap at Pocono, Pa., in 1988 when his Buick cut a tire and swerved into the path of a car driven by Jocko Maggiacomo.

Allison's car was hit on the driver's door. He suffered head and leg injures that kept him hospitalized and in rehabilitation for months.

Since then, Allison has been embroiled in lawsuits, trying to force insurance companies, including Lloyds of London, to pay his expenses.

He also was forced into bankruptcy.

The most recent driver to face that road is Jerry Nadeau, who suffered serious head and lung injuries two months ago in a crash during practice at Richmond, Va.

Nadeau, 32, is undergoing a rehabilitation program that includes physical, recreational, occupational and speech therapy. His future is unclear.

Irvan's first crash at Michigan International Speedway in 1994 left him with brain damage, blurred vision and a 10 percent chance of survival. He eventually worked his way back onto the circuit to win three races including a stirring victory at Michigan in 1997, but two years later he sustained another head injury while driving at Michigan.

A few days later and at the relief of his friends and family Irvan decided to become a full-time father and husband.

''I'm glad that he made the decision because I didn't want to go to his funeral,'' said Marc Reno, a crew chief and car owner who gave Irvan his first ride in Winston Cup. ''I've spent enough time in hospitals.''

Having seen the plight of Allison and others, some drivers are making insurance coverage a bigger priority. But such coverage is not always easy to find and is always expensive.

As expected, disability and hospitalization insurance costs are exorbitant, and only a few companies will write it. Drivers can expect to pay premiums that begin at about $25,000 a year, and can run significantly higher, said Matt Timpson of Jonesboro, Ga.-based Tara Insurance Co.

After Irvan was injured the first time in 1994, he beefed up his coverage for life, medical and disability, according to team manager Jay Frye.

When the final crash prompted his retirement, the driver was able to maintain his lifestyle physically and financially.

Frye is going through it again with Nadeau, who suffered head, lung, rib and shoulder injuries May 2 in a crash at Richmond International Speedway. Like Irvan, he apparently had enough insurance to cover the cost of recovery and rehabilitation.

''Right now Jerry is very focused on what he needs to do, so we really haven't seen any down times with him,'' Frye said. ''He knows he's not ready to come back, but he's further ahead of other people in his condition.''

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