The popular driver survived two major injuries and now enjoys retired life with his family.
For fans that have only followed NASCAR since 2000, there is one driver who was always quick to put on a show for the fans that they never got to see on the race track.
After a near fatal accident in 1994, he returned to drive again only to be forced to retire after another accident at the same track five years later.
Motorsport.com caught up recently with Ernie Irvan to talk about those two incidents and life for him in retirement in this week’s feature.
Irvan was one of the most popular and successful drivers in what was then known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series during the era of rapid growth for the sport in the 1990’s.
The Modesto, California native moved east to follow his dreams, but like many drivers of his generation, he had to work his way to the top and pay his dues.
Moving with a dream
Irvan’s dad Vic had already moved to the East Coast and he told his son that if he wanted to pursue a career in NASCAR he should also move east. Irvan decided to make the move and brought just a frame and roll cage with him. While he already had a one-car race team, Vic Irvan wanted his son to drive for him and so his racing career in the Carolinas was born when he got to the Carolinas.
After driving for his dad for a while around tracks in the Carolinas, Irvan met crew chief and car builder Mark Reno. Irvan joined forces with Reno building cars and selling them.
“We decided to take a car and try it out and I would drive,” said Irvan. “At that time we were working on some stuff for Kenny Schrader and we told him we needed a sponsor and he said he would take care of it and he did. He got Dale Earnhardt Sr. to sponsor us, only catch was it wasn’t for any money just his name.”
Although they didn’t get any money, having Earnhardt’s Chevrolet dealership on the car gave the team some credibility and that was the value for the team and Irvan to get recognized.
Irvan and Reno raced together in 1986 and some in 1987 before running out of money.
“We were going to run five races in 1987 but blew up in our first race and had to try something else out,” Irvan said. “We teamed up with D.K. Ulrich and ran his number on our car and we wound up finishing eighth in our third start with him at Charlotte.”
Irvan would stay with Ulrich for the 1988 and 1989 seasons before moving to legendary car owner Junie Donlavey in 1990.
“Junie offered me a ride in 1990 after I didn’t have anything lined up and we raced together for the first three races of the 1990 season,” said Irvan. “After Junie’s sponsor didn’t pay anything Junie freed me up after the first three races because he didn’t know if he would be able to keep going. I always appreciated the opportunity he gave me to have a ride that year.”
Big break with Morgan McClure team
Morgan-McClure Motorsports was a team that had already fielded Cup cars since 1983 and had been competing since 1986 on a regular basis with Rick Wilson. Wilson drove full-time in 1988 and 1989, but the team decided to make a change and put Phil Parsons in the car for the 1990 season.
After three races, the team tested Irvan and decided to make a change again putting Irvan behind the wheel.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when Larry McClure called and asked me to test the car,” Irvan said. “I must have done a good job because after that test they offered me the ride and I was on my way.”
The chemistry with the team was evident very quickly as Irvan finished with 13 top-10 finishes in 26 starts for the remainder of the season. The highlights that season were winning his first career pole at Bristol in just his third start with the team and his first career Cup win at the same track in the fall race.
“That was an opportunity that really helped me get going and I was always grateful for the chance I had in 1990 with the No. 4 car,” Irvan said. “We won the Daytona 500 together in 1991 and I wound up getting five wins with them.”
Although they enjoyed success and seemed to be working well together, an event happened that changed all of that in 1993.
Allison’s death led to new opportunity
After Davey Allison died suddenly in a helicopter accident in the middle of the 1993 season, Irvan wanted to make the move to the No. 28 car driven by his late friend and owned by Robert Yates despite being under contract at Morgan-McClure Motorsports.
“Robert and I talked after Davey’s accident and I was eventually able to move over to drive for them later in the season,” Irvan said.
The decision to leave was not without its challenges as lawsuits were filed, but Irvan moved to Robert Yates Racing and made his first start with the team at Darlington Raceway.
Success was also quick for Irvan with Yates as they won at Martinsville Speedway from the pole in just their fourth start together. They would go on to win again two races later in the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A fateful day in Michigan
Saturday, Aug. 20, 1994 started out like any other day at the track for Irvan. His team was prepping his car for morning practice and Irvan was ready to go as soon as NASCAR officials opened the track for practice.
At approximately 8:40 a.m. that morning Irvan was nearing the end of a short practice run when his tire gave away and he hit the Turn 2 wall at Michigan International Speedway at a speed of approximately 170 mph.
“The thing about that accident is I don’t remember a thing about it,” Irvan said. “I remember playing cards with some friends the night before the accident and then waking up 23 days later in the hospital.”
For Irvan it might have been a good thing he doesn’t remember.
Irvan was given just a 5-10 percent chance of survival initially after the accident after suffering a basal skull fracture. Yes, the same type of injury that had killed several other drivers including Dale Earnhardt Sr., Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin.
Irvan was lucky to survive the vicious accident and injuries he suffered.
“I also suffered an aneurism which is common with this type of injury that damaged an artery in my eye in addition to the head trauma,” said Irvan. “I guess I didn’t realize at first how badly I was injured.”
Irvan thought he would recover and be back by the end of the season or surely for the 1995 Daytona 500 – but it wasn’t possible.
“Robert told me I had a ride when I got better so I went to work trying to get better,” Irvan said. “I didn’t think it would take as long as it did, but I did make it back.”
‘Don’t ever tell him that again’
While he continued his recovery to return to racing, Irvan met with doctors several times and with him the entire time was his wife, Kim. He said she helped him as much as anyone during his recovery and she even made sure the doctors were in line too.
“We had a visit one time with the doctor and he told us that I would just be lucky if I would ever able to drive my daughter to school someday,” he said. “Kim didn’t like that and met the doctor in the hall way and told him to never ever say something like that again. She was afraid if I heard that all the time from the doctors I would just give up. She was so strong in helping me get better.”
Irvan added the doctors never talked to him about limits in his recovery again and the then 35 year-old driver continued to improve every day.
“Robert and Ford got together and put a plan for me to return to racing if I was able and that gave me something to work towards,” Irvan added.
Back in the car … finally
In September 1995, nearly 13 months after his accident, Irvan was able to test again for Yates and NASCAR.
“The best thing I heard that day was when Robert told me he couldn’t tell a difference in my driving,” Irvan said. “That was great to hear from him.”
Irvan was cleared to return to competition by NASCAR and made his first start at North Wilkesboro and it was a day he will never forget.
“The response from the fans, competitors, officials and everyone was just unbelievable and it meant so much to me and my family and it still does to this day,” he added. “That was an awesome day and I ran pretty well too – even outran my teammate at the time Dale Jarrett.”
Irvan finished sixth in his first race back and even scored another top-10 finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway (7th) in the season finale.
Oh no, not again
Irvan would go on to drive for RYR in 1996 and 1997 scoring three more wins – including one at Michigan – before he moved on in 1998 to MB2 Motorsports.
In 1999, Irvan was competing in what was then the NASCAR Busch Series when he suffered another accident in the same turn at Michigan – Turn 2.
Although Irvan suffered some significant injuries in the crash, he wasn’t injured as badly as he was in 1994, but he soon realized it was time to retire.
“I was in a therapy session in Charlotte and I realized right there that I wasn’t going to be able to come back this time,” he said. “I called Kim from there and told her I’ve decided to retire.”
On to the next chapter
Now in retirement Irvan spends time with his family and still is involved in racing.
“I still miss racing every day,” Irvan said. “But now I help my son Jared in his driving career and it’s rewarding to watch him learn and be successful. He’s so much better a driver than I ever was.”
In fact, three days after this interview was conducted, Jared passed Christian Eckes, who won the prestigious Myrtle Beach 400 and Snowball Derby races last fall, on a late restart and held on to win the Pro All Stars Series race at Dillon Motor Speedway.
“We’re moving to Florida where my daughter Jordan can work with her horses more and we’ll still keep our shop in North Carolina for Jared to race out of,” he added. “I’m lucky that I get to spend time with my family all of us doing what we love still today.”
Thank you to competitors and fans
It’s been well documented that Irvan at times had issues with his competitors and he once stood up in front of his fellow drivers to apologize for his actions. However, that didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most popular and well-liked competitors in the garage.
“I was too aggressive early on in my career as I thought you had to drive like you were on a short track all the time and I created some situations in races that didn’t go too well,” Irvan said. “Once I realized that and worked hard to drive smarter and better things fell into place.”
Irvan said he lost count of the over 10,000 cards and letters he received after his injuries and subsequent retirement, but one thing is certain, he appreciated everyone one of them.
“That meant so much to me and my family that the fans would take time to send me a card or letter,” he added. “We worked hard and tried to send something back to every one of those fans who took time to reach out to me and wish me well. I’ll never forget that support.
I just want to thank all the fans who supported me from my early days through the Daytona 500 win and my success before I got hurt. As a driver that is all you can ask for and thanks to the fans for everything and those who still support me – and now my son too.”
Ernie Irvan Driving Accomplishments
Race Starts: 382 (313 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, 57 NASCAR Xfinity Series, 12 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series)
Poles: 27 (22 MENCS; 5 NXS)
Race Wins: 18 (15 MENCS; 3 NXS);
Key Accomplishments: 1991 Daytona 500 champion
Honors: Named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers during 50th anniversary celebration in 1998