Life, (near) death and racing: Ernie Irvan’s tragedy and triumph at Michigan

Ernie Irvan keeps all the trophies from his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in a display case. He and his family are moving this weekend from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Ocala, Florida, and he recently packed the trophies to prepare for the movers’ arrival.

He won the Daytona 500, the night race at Bristol and both road courses. He won at Talladega, the longest track in the sport, and at Martinsville, the shortest. He won 15 Cup races in all, and as he grabbed each trophy, memories of the circumstances behind each win came back.

“When I was packing them all up, I saw the one at Sears Point. You think of what happened at Sears Point. You see one at Watkins Glen, and think about what happened at Watkins Glen,” Irvan says. “Whenever you’re sitting there, you always reminisce.”

When he picked up the Michigan trophy — his 15th and final win, 20 years ago this summer — the memories were particularly powerful. And not just because it was the last Cup race he ever won, but because of brutal crashes before and after that win and the life-saving maneuvers of a doctor who arrived at his car. Without that doctor and helicopter on site, he says, he would have died at the track and never gotten that final win.

“All the things put together, it was just kind of a miracle,” he says.

THREE WEEKS GONE

The mid-1990s were a brutally difficult time for NASCAR. On April 1, 1993, defending champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash. On July 13, 1993, Davey Allison died in a helicopter crash. In February 1994, Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr died in separate practices for the Daytona 500.

When Ernie Irvan joined Robert Yates Racing in late 1993 to replace Allison, he had long been considered a fiercely competitive and extremely talented driver. When he won his third race in the Yates car in the 10th race of the 1994 season, he appeared poised to take the next step and win a championship.

“It was just instant success, instant speed,” says Doug Yates, RYR’s chief engine builder and son of owner Robert Yates. “It was a perfect driver for our No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford. We couldn’t ask for anybody better to succeed Davey Allison.”

With a new team, Ernie Irvan looked like a title contender in 1994 until his wreck at Michigan. | RacingOne

Through the first 20 races of 1994, Irvan had three wins and 13 top fives. He had been first or second in points every week of the season. It looked like he and Dale Earnhardt would have a season-long battle for the championship. Superstardom awaited.

The Friday of the August Michigan race, Irvan, Doug Yates and their wives played Monopoly in Robert Yates’ motorhome parked inside Michigan International Speedway. Throughout the game, Irvan made side deals. He accumulated first great wealth, then a bunch of hotels. Soon he stacked bills high in front of him and everybody else was out of money. He beat them all.

But he has a confession to make: “I was cheating really bad.”

Doug Yates laughs when he hears this … and confirms the outcome, if not the cheating. But he wouldn’t be surprised. Whatever Irvan did – cards, Monopoly, racing, pickup basketball — he did whatever he had to do to win.

That game of Monopoly is Irvan’s last memory for three weeks.

During practice the next morning, Irvan’s Ford Thunderbird cut a tire and slammed into the wall. He was bleeding badly and says now he would have died right there in the car if Dr. John Maino, who had been stationed nearby, hadn’t arrived so quickly. Irvan was in danger of drowning in his own blood, so Maino performed an emergency tracheotomy inside the car — he cut a slit in Irvan’s throat and inserted a tube to allow him to breathe. Irvan says he would have died without that. He was on a helicopter just 23 minutes later and flown to a hospital in Ann Arbor.

Irvan suffered a traumatic brain injury, skull fracture and chest injuries. Doctors gave him a 10 percent chance to live. “When something serious happens, an eeriness comes over the garage. It becomes very quiet. This was one of those situations,” says Dale Jarrett, who drove for Joe Gibbs Racing at the time. “As we got more information, about just how serious an accident it was, our attention turned to hoping that Ernie was going to be OK. Many of us have been through blown tires, this was one of the severe cases of what can happen.”

‘WASN’T A PRETTY DEAL’

Marc Reno had been friends with Irvan for years. They had raced together and lived next door to each other when they were trying to launch their racing careers. Reno was working at the time for an XFINITY Series team and by coincidence, his hauler had been parked next to Irvan’s in the XFINITY garage that weekend.

After a dispute about tires that weekend at Michigan, Reno’s team opted to leave instead of race. Reno had just gotten home to Florida when he heard about the wreck. He immediately flew back to Michigan. “I was in on a good part of the doctors’ meetings and stuff when they told him he had a 10 or 15 percent chance of living — if he made it 48 hours,” Reno says. “It wasn’t a pretty deal.”

Reno says he flew back and forth to Michigan 10 times to be by Irvan’s side. It was unsettling to see his friend lying in the hospital bed. On one visit, he counted 21 tubes running into Irvan.

George Tiedemann photo

Irvan remembers waking up 20 days after the wreck wondering where he was. The TV was on, and he says he saw someone else — it turned out to be Kenny Wallace — driving his No. 28 car. He couldn’t talk, so he used hand gestures to ask questions. His wife, Kim, explained to him what had happened.

Irvan’s rehab was long and extensive. But he returned to the race car in late 1995, competing in three races for Robert Yates Racing and finishing sixth, 40th and seventh. Jarrett had replaced him; when Irvan came back, RYR expanded to a two-car team.

In 1996, Irvan won at Loudon in his 19th race back and again at Richmond a few months later. “It was just miraculous, really, that he could even be back driving a race car after everything he had been through,” says Jarrett, who won the 1999 championship for RYR and is now a NASCAR analyst on NBC. “He had such a near-death experience, and here he was performing at a high-level once again.”

The wreck left Irvan with lingering vision issues, so he raced with a patch over one eye. “He was as good or better as anybody with one eye,” Doug Yates says. “This guy is the most talented and toughest guy I’ve been around. It was truly amazing.”

‘WILL TO LIVE, COMPETE’

As the 1997 season approached, Larry McReynolds had left as Irvan’s crew chief and RYR was looking for a replacement. Reno went to the Robert Yates Racing office in Charlotte for an interview for the position. When he got back out to his car after the interview, he discovered somebody had broken into it and stolen all of his family’s Christmas presents, which had been in the trunk. But he got the job.

As the season started, the cars Reno built and Irvan drove were fast, but they both say they let a few wins get away. “I remember in 1997 thinking, ‘God, he is fast,’ ” says Kyle Petty, who drove for a team he owned that season and is now a NASCAR analyst on NBC . “He was back as a contender.”

At Michigan for the June race, Irvan and Reno must have had high expectations. Though Irvan had never won there, he had finished in the top five the two previous races. Throughout practice, Reno experimented with the car’s setup. “We started putting bigger rear springs on the car, getting the back of the car up in the air. And it would go faster and faster and faster,” he says. “Every time we would go up 50 pounds, it would just go faster.”

Irvan started 20th on June 15, 1997. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 163 (of 200) and led for 12 laps. He resumed the top spot on Lap 180. He started to cry with 10 laps to go.

“There were some tears shed in the pits as well,” says Doug Yates. “Any time you’re leading the race at the end, your stomach is in knots. The anticipation is building. Take all that and multiply it by 10, 100 or 1,000 because of everything that went on. It was a pretty special moment. It was a great day.”

As he took the white flag, Irvan thought about his wreck from three years before. He looked at the wall that nearly killed him as he zoomed past it. “I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to get through the corner, because that was the corner I crashed in,’ ” he says. “But everything went smooth.”

After he pulled to a stop in Victory Lane, his wife, Kim, leaned in to kiss him. “The first thing I thought of is, ‘I finally conquered this place. It didn’t get me, I got them,’ ” he says.

He climbed out of the car and was greeted by pit road reporter Mike Joy, then of CBS. Irvan seemed to have his emotions in check — he talked about sponsors and bad luck so far that year and getting a win in Ford Motor Company’s backyard. Joy asked Kim Irvan a question on live TV about the win being big for the family, and she was so speechless by what had just happened that she barely squeaked out an answer.

Joy, who now does play by play for FOX’s NASCAR coverage, compares Irvan’s win to Kevin Harvick’s win for Richard Childress Racing three weeks after Dale Earnhardt died and Jeff Gordon’s win in the first race at the Brickyard and last career win at Martinsville.

“It felt RIGHT,” Joy says via email. “Fitting, redemption, validation, relief, all yes. Historic? Moreso now than then.”

Ernie Irvan had to watch someone else (Kenny Wallace) drive his car for the rest of the 1994 season. | RacingOne

In the years since, Irvan’s win has come to represent what Irvan’s friends love about him — toughness, resilience and speed. “The victory at Michigan in ’97 really just closed a chapter on everything that happened that day in Michigan, all of the hard work and effort and will to live and will to compete again that Ernie had,” Doug Yates says. “That was gratifying for him, of course. But it was also gratifying for my dad and myself and everybody on the team. It gave some closure to that tough day that we had there in 1994. This was really a guy fighting for his life and fighting to do what he loved and validating he was one of the best ever to sit in a NASCAR race car.”

WRECKED, THEN RECOVERY

On Aug. 20, 1999, five years to the day after the wreck that almost killed him, Irvan had another bad wreck at Michigan. “He spun out and hit driver’s side flat against the wall,” Reno says. “His helmet had a dent in it from the roll bar, like an inch and three quarter. It looked like someone took a pipe and hit him with it.”

The impact knocked Irvan unconscious, and he was transported again to a hospital. While his injuries were less dramatic than the first Michigan wreck, they proved to be career ending.

After retiring, Irvan started the Race2Safety Foundation and ran it for a few years to promote head injury awareness. One of the foundation’s major fund-raising events was a track walk at Michigan, at which donors could walk a lap around the track that nearly killed him … then gave him one of the most memorable wins in NASCAR history … then ended his career.

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races on Sunday at Michigan (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Irvan will move into his new home in Florida. Somewhere deep in his moving truck will be that Michigan trophy. When he takes it out of the box and puts it up in his new trophy room, he will think again of those three incredible days at Michigan — two terrible wrecks sandwiched around an unbelievable win.

The strongest emotion he will feel is gratitude. Long ago, he decided to see his Michigan glass as half full instead of half empty. Yes, he got hurt, badly. But he prefers to be thankful there was a doctor positioned in the turn and thankful the track had a helicopter on standby during practice.

Take either one of those away, and he would have died in the seat of his No. 28 Thunderbird.

“I was very lucky because they had everything they needed to save my life,” he says.

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