Loudon Always Conjures Up Memories And What Ifs

I long for the day when New Hampshire Motor Speedway rolls around on the NASCAR calendar and I'm not overcome by a hollow feeling.

It's been twelve years since that wretched summer when two of our sport's most promising youngsters perished in the 1.058-mile oval's third turn. Still, it's impossible to think about the Loudon race track and memories of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin not follow.

They were supposed to be headliners of what was going to be NASCAR's new breed of superstar. Petty, already the first fourth-generation athlete ever, was going to carry on his family's legacy of winning races and contending for titles just as he had already continued their legacy as a humanitarian. Times had been lean for Petty Enterprises, but he was going to be the spark that turned the team's fortunes around and returned NASCAR's most famous name to the front of the pack.

Irwin was the open-wheel standout, cut from the same cloth as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. His Winston Cup career hadn't been what anyone had expected, but I'm confident he would have won races many times over had he been able to reap the benefits of Chip Ganassi's purchase of controlling interest in his race team. Looking at the pure driving talent Irwin displayed in the open-wheel ranks and his lone season of Craftsman Truck Series competition alongside the performance of Sterling Marlin in Ganassi's Dodges in 2001 and 2002, and it seems an almost certainty that he would have blossomed into a bona fide stock car racing superstar.

Alas, it was not to be.

Both drivers' Chevrolet Monte Carlos experienced stuck throttles that sent them at full speed across the track's flat third turn into the concrete wall. With the head-and-neck restraint revolution that followed Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona the following February still a year away, neither crash was survivable. Irwin was a month from turning 31. Petty was two months shy of his twentieth birthday.

As Richard Petty said following Irwin's death just eight weeks after his grandson's accident, there was nothing wrong with the speedway itself. It just happened to be the venue for a pair of tragic incidents within a two-month period. Still, the memories of the fatalities and the what-ifs that linger more than a decade later cast a pall over each visit to New England.

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