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DRAWN BACK TO DANGER

Stanley Smith needs to find something to do before he goes and does something "foolish," something that might get him killed, like that horrifying crash at Talladega almost did last year. Something like stock car racing again.

He gave boating a try, but it didn't do anything for him. Fishing was boring. Jet-skiing didn't grab him, either.

"I even took up golf and got to be pretty fair at it. I'm shooting in the 90s," Smith said. "But I just don't enjoy it like racing and all."

After 12 years of gripping the steering wheel of a NASCAR stock car, Smith is discovering that it is, in fact, the steering wheel that has been gripping him all this time. He is one of several drivers who have survived seemingly unsurvivable wrecks lately only to announce plans to resume racing as soon as their fractured, punctured and ruptured bodies are whole again.

The most recent case is Ernie Irvan, the Winston Cup star who sustained a fractured skull and spent a week in a coma after hitting a concrete wall at Michigan International Speedway nearly head-on at 176 mph in August. Doctors said it was a miracle he lived.

Yet less than three weeks after the accident, while still in intensive care, Irvan told fellow driver Dale Earnhardt: "I ain't retiring. I ain't gonna retire."

Some others:

Formula One driver Karl Wendlinger of Austria crashed at a Monte Carlo track in May and spent more than two weeks in a coma with a brain contusion and cerebral swelling. Two months into his hospital stay he said: "I'm still interested in (racing) Formula One. It was always my aim and will remain so." His team announced last week he will drive in the Japanese Grand Prix on Nov. 6.

Winston Cup veteran Neil Bonnett crashed at Darlington Raceway in 1990 and suffered damaged brain cells, brain swelling and memory loss. Three years later, doctors cleared him to race, but suggested he not. In practice for his first season of regular competition since the accident, Bonnett was killed when his car slammed into the wall at Daytona International Speedway.

NHRA Top Fuel drag racer Darrell Gwynn hit a guardrail at 260 mph during a run in England in 1990. He lost 23 pints of blood, his left arm was severed at the elbow and he was paralyzed from the chest down. Sitting in a motorized wheelchair a year later, Gwynn said: "I'll be right back in with one of the most highly sophisticated arms made. I might even be a one-armed bandit."

Gwynn remains a car owner, but has not driven again.

Some drivers, recognizing the inherent dangers, have called it quits after the most minor of accidents. But many others go on. For them the question wasn't "if" they'd return, but "when."

For those outside the racing fraternity, the question is always much simpler: Why?

"I don't really know why," said Smith, who now has only one artery instead of two leading to his head, and an immobile left eye that produces double vision. "Sometimes I feel like I want to do it at least one or two more times just to show everybody that I didn't let the wreck scare me. But really I look at it just like people who have crashes on the highway every day. They get mangled and hurt pretty bad. But when they get well, they don't stop driving."

Irvan could have been speaking for many of his peers when he said racing is "everything I've ever done, and I don't really know how to do anything else."

Mostly, though, drivers do it for one reason: love _ for the sport, for the thrill they get from going nearly 200 mph. Love so strong, they say, they're willing to die for it. But they all think they never will.

"You never think it can happen to you," said Formula 2000 driver Ernest Sikes, 26, who fractured his spinal cord in two places and was paralyzed for two weeks when his Indy-style car barrel rolled at 122 mph at Road Atlanta last year. "I think it has to happen to you (before you're convinced)."

This "no-fear" attitude shows up in drivers in the early stages of their racing education. "We see them fairly early on and they already have it," said Jeff Robillard, a manager of the Road Atlanta Racing School in Braselton, Ga., where aspiring drivers get their first professional instruction.

Psychologist Robert Schleser said racers who show little fear of dying in a crash have become desensitized to danger from being around the sport for years. Schleser calls it the Sunday Best phenomenon, referring to a study where violent offenders became less physical when they wore dressy attire _ their "Sunday best."

"Studies have shown there's a relationship between behavior and attitude. If you drive a race car, you'll think like a race car driver," said Schleser, who heads the Center for Sports Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "For them, flipping in a car at 200 mph is part of the ups and downs of the business, just an occupational hazard."

Schleser warned that any driver who thinks he or she isn't vulnerable to fatal accidents is "in big-time denial. I think athletes in general are like that. Whenever someone gets hurt, they look at it as something that's a fluke. "

One doesn't need a psychologist to understand the enticements to come back from a near-fatal crash. Irvan, for instance, had earned more than $1.1-million for his Robert Yates-owned team this season before his accident.

Just 35 and driving for one of the premier Winston Cup teams, Irvan stands to enjoy many more million-dollar seasons. That would go a long way in meeting medical bills that could all but wipe out his $5.4-million in career prize money.

But that doesn't explain Sikes' return to Formula 2000. His paydays in the low-level open-wheeled series rarely amount to more than a few thousand dollars, yet he's back on the track _ even though he hasn't gotten back all of his memory and can't do some simple things, like running.

NHRA Funny Car driver Jerry Caminito explained: "You have so many people who are supporting you and who want you to come back that I'd feel guilty if I didn't."

Caminito, 51, veered into a guardrail at 280 mph at the Mid-South Nationals in Memphis in May and sustained collapsed lungs, six fractured ribs, a broken leg and bone chips in his neck and wrist. Doctors summoned his wife to say they had little hope.

Caminito is now counting the days until doctors remove the rod in his leg, which will allow him to race again.

"When the pain goes away," said James Finch, Bonnett's last car owner, "you forget how bad it hurt."

Some people, though, never forget _ namely, families and friends who suffered through the driver's recovery.

"It's awful selfish," said Smith, whose wife and two children suffered along with him during his 40 days in the hospital. "I saw it at Neil's funeral, you know, watching what Susan (Bonnett's wife) and those kids went through. If I don't (race) again, that will be the very reason I don't."

Delphia Smith said she was initially opposed to her husband's return. "I've been a nervous wreck for 10 years, you know?" she said. "But I realized that he's happier when he's racing and I don't want him to be miserable."

If it's any consolation to their families, several drivers said they haven't come away from their near-death crashes unchanged.

"I'm not more cautious, but I respect (the danger) a lot more," Sikes said. "I used to think it couldn't hurt me. Now I know it can."

Said Smith: "I really don't need to race again. In my mind, I know it would be foolish. You don't come that close to death and get to do it again. But it's kind of like being an addict. Even though they know it's not good for them, they go out and do it again. If I could just find something to pacify me, I think I could walk away."

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