Injuries may have forced him to retire prematurely from NASCAR in 1999, but horsepower continues to be a major part of Ernie Irvan’s life.
Two vastly different types of horsepower, that is.
There’s the traditional version of horsepower that the veteran NASCAR driver knows all too well. It keeps him still involved in racing, serving as a car owner, builder, crew chief and pretty much anything else that needs to be done overseeing son Jared’s career in late model racing these days.
“It’s just the two of us, Jared and myself,” Irvan told NASCAR.com. “We take care of the car ourselves. And we run right here in Citrus County (Florida). There’s like five tracks that we can go to within a couple, three hours.”
The other type of horsepower that takes up a big chunk of Irvan’s time is being with Kim, his wife of 29 years, and their daughter Jordan, who are both involved in horse racing and other equestrian events.
The Irvan’s and their adult children — Jordan, 28, and Jared, 24 — moved to central Florida several years ago to be closer to equestrian competitions in the Southeast for Kim and Jordan, as well as Jared’s budding racing career.
“Jared would love to (reach NASCAR),” Irvan said. “Even though he’s getting his private airplane pilot’s license now, he would love to (race in NASCAR).”
Irvan then added with a good laugh: “I always (tell Jared) racing’s the best way to make a living and not have to work. You get paid, but if you could, you would do it for free.
“I remember I asked Dale Earnhardt one time, ‘What should I ask for my next salary in my next contract?’ He said, ‘You love racing?’ I said, ‘Yep.’ He said, ‘Would you do it for free if you had to?’ And I said yep again. Then Dale said, ‘OK, I would do that, too, but don’t tell Richard Childress!’”
While the semi-retired, 63-year-old Irvan says “life is good” these days, it wasn’t always like that. In a little over a five-and-a-half-year span, he and his family endured three terrible incidents, including one that almost killed Ernie.
On Aug. 20, 1994, he was involved in a horrendous wreck during Cup practice at Michigan International Speedway. A tire blew and he went head-on into the Turn 1 wall. When rescuers pulled him from the mangled race car, Irvan was unconscious and drowning in his blood.
Had it not been for a quick response at the race track and being airlifted to a hospital for immediate surgery, Irvan likely would not have survived. He gives much of the credit to that life-saving surgery to Ann Arbor, Michigan, trauma surgeon, Dr. John Maino, who just happened to be volunteering that day with the local rescue squad that was stationed in the infield near Turn 1.
“Who would have ever thought there was a trauma doctor in the corner where I crashed and he saved my life,” Irvan said. “Dr. Maino came right out with the ambulance, they didn’t know how bad I was. He diagnosed me real quick. So, he put a trach in me right away, to get it to where I could breathe again. He saved my life … and I was able to come back to racing a year later.
“Obviously, there was somebody above, God, looking out for me. I mean, I had more in this world to accomplish than I had accomplished. Racing was just a very small part of it. Most important was my family needed me (Jordan was just 1 year old at the time and Jared would come along four years later).”
It took him nearly 14 months of recovery after that crash, but Irvan eventually returned to racing and finished sixth in his first race back at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway on Oct. 1, 1995.
Even though he earned 15 wins in his Cup career, including the 1991 Daytona 500 and returned to Michigan to win there again in 1997 (his final Cup victory), one race stands out above all else for Irvan.
You might say it was a win of a different sort.
“In a lot of ways, I look back and that race when I came back, at North Wilkesboro, was probably the best race I ever had,” Irvan said. “Not because I did it with an eye patch on, or that it wasn’t because it was the best finish I ever had. It was because I got back to racing and doing what I loved.”
It was team owner Robert Yates who convinced NASCAR officials that Irvan could race well, even with an eye patch.
“NASCAR took Robert Yates’ word of me being able to drive a race car again, and Robert had a lot of credibility,” Irvan said. “Robert said, ‘he’s good.’ So I was able to do that. Just being able to finish the race without having any problems, it was just such a reward in my life, to be able to get back to do what I love to do, to be able to do it again and being able to extend my career more.”
In a cruel twist of irony, five years later to the day of his original crash, this time being Aug. 20, 1999, Irvan was once again back at MIS, qualifying for a Busch Series race, when he lost control exiting Turn 4 and hit the wall. While his injuries were less severe than his crash five years earlier, they were serious enough that two weeks later, in a tearful goodbye, he announced his retirement as a driver at Darlington Raceway.
Even though his 1994 wreck involved a blown tire, Irvan has long blamed himself somewhat for the circumstances of the wreck.
“I always say there was decisions I made in my career that probably led to things that I could have changed, situations where like I might never have gotten hurt,” he said. “That first accident at Michigan, Larry McReynolds (Irvan’s crew chief, now a Fox Sports NASCAR analyst) said, ‘Hey, let’s go out and run a 10-lapper (practice run) and see what we’ve got.’
“I was making the 10 laps and Larry said, ‘Man, we definitely need to work on this thing so come in and we’ll work on it.’ I told him, ‘Let me make a couple more (laps).’ Well, I went into Turn 1, blew the tire out and hit the fence. If I would have not done that, who knows what would have happened. I made that extra lap and I paid the price for it. I look back on it now and say, ‘Man, I wish I hadn’t done that.’
“And then the second accident five years later, we had just built a brand new car and I was qualifying in Michigan and we were really, really fast. I think it was 3/10 quicker than everybody on the first lap. Then I told myself, ‘Man, I swear I can hold this thing wide open.’ And I tried to and busted my butt.
“I was never happy. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m on the pole. Let’s pull in.’ But no, I always wanted to get to the next step, to go faster.”
Irvan’s run of misfortune didn’t end with the 1999 wreck. Sadly, just over six months after his premature injury-related retirement, Irvan was on vacation with his family when an electrical issue caused a fire that destroyed the family’s Lake Norman, North Carolina, home.
Virtually all of his racing memories, including all of his winner trophies, were destroyed in the fire. But to his credit, then-NASCAR President Bill France Jr. ordered identical duplicate trophies be made to replace the ones Irvan had lost in the fire. Something for which Irvan will forever be grateful.
Irvan’s early retirement from racing also prevented him from achieving more goals. Even though he amassed 15 Cup wins in 313 starts (plus three other triumphs in the Busch Series), he’s long felt he could have won many more if it hadn’t been for the 1994 wreck.
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“I feel really good about what I was able to accomplish, but would I have been able to accomplish more if the situation hadn’t happened with me getting hurt? There’s no doubt,” Irvan said. “When I was driving the 28 car, we were en route to being able to win more races. Larry McReynolds did an interview a few years ago and said if I hadn’t gotten hurt, I might have won 30 or 40 races.”
These days, even though he has a lifetime pass that allows him to attend any NASCAR event, Irvan still keeps up with sport, mainly watching races on TV and making occasional in-person appearances at race tracks.
A good example of that was four days before this year’s Daytona 500. Irvan, who lives roughly 80 miles from Daytona International Speedway, was once again invited to take part in a popular annual old-timers event at the legendary Streamline Hotel where NASCAR was founded in 1948.
“Bobby and Donny Allison were there, Red Farmer was there, there was quite a few different racers there,” Irvan said. “So I went and did that deal, saw a bunch of people, then went back home and watched the race on TV on Sunday.”
Then he added with his noted sense of humor, “I can watch it on TV and I can drink my own beer rather than have to pay the $9 or $10 for a beer there.”
Even though it was cut short, Irvan says he has no regrets from his racing career, except for one that he hopes may still happen one day.
Namely, induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Surprisingly, Irvan’s name has never made the cut for the 20- or 25-individual field of nominees each year from which the final inductees emerge.
“To make the Hall of Fame would be unbelievable,” Irvan said. “That’s something that I would love to have that, that I could put on my mantle and say I’m in the Hall of Fame.”
Irvan isn’t the only one who would like to see him in the NASCAR Hall. A lot of his fans would also love to see that.
Even to this day, fans remain a big part of Irvan’s life, whether they see him at a race track or a local restaurant or bump into him at the store.
“It’s really nice to be able to be recognized,” Irvan said.
But he admits he also owes some fans an apology from instances of years past.
“When I was racing all the time, sometimes you might be at dinner and a fan come up – you’re in the middle of a bite – and want an autograph,” he said. “You don’t know how important that is until you don’t have that anymore.
“Today, I have no problem with that. But it’s also not 30 times a day. Nowadays, I enjoy talking to race fans more than I did before because I was just more focused on racing. I was there to beat everybody, every day, whatever it took. I regret I didn’t take care of my race fans as well as I should have and didn’t take care of my sponsors as well as I should have.”
Even after nearly a quarter-century away from his last race, Irvan admits he still feels good when fans come up to him.
“It really does,” he said, then laughs while relating another story. “Especially here in Ocala and somebody recognizes you at a restaurant. It’s like, man, I’m in horse country and somebody recognizes me in a restaurant?”
He then returns to a more serious side and adds, “It’s just amazing, the memories that people have. It’s really rewarding to be able to have it where people remember you for what you’ve done.”
The Ernie Irvan file:
* Age: 63
* Hometown: Now lives in Ocala, Florida
* Wife: Married 29 years to Kim
* Children: Daughter Jordan (28 years old) and son Jared (24 years old)
* NASCAR Cup career: 313 races, 15 wins, 68 top-five finishes, 124 top 10s and 22 poles. Best standings finish: fifth (1991).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 57 races, 3 wins, 12 top-five finishes, 15 top 10s and five poles. Only part-time seasons in the series.
* NASCAR Truck Series career: 12 races, 0 wins, 7 top-five finishes and 8 top 10s. Only part-time seasons in the series.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski specializes in writing Where Are They Now? stories for NASCAR.com. Among those he’s done to date include Steve Grissom, Johnny Benson, Stacy Compton, Mike Bliss, Doug Richert, Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya.