Editor’s Note: This column originally ran on August 28th, 2006. Come back every Friday this season for another edition of one of these columns, appropriately entitled That’s History.
This Sunday at Michigan, cars will gather and the field will roar off, 43 of the best drivers in the world putting on a great show at one of the series’ greatest tracks. But that day will also mark a near-tragic anniversary that will be on the minds of several fans who have followed the sport for quite sometime.
On August 20, 1994, NASCAR nearly lost Ernie Irvan to a horrific crash at Michigan. Irvan doesn’t remember the crash that day, nor does he remember the three weeks following the crash, but everyone who was a NASCAR fan then probably remembers it like it happened yesterday.
For the first 20 races during the 1994 season, Irvan was the story of the year, taking a No. 28 Robert Yates Racing team still reeling from the death of former driver Davey Allison the previous July back to the top of the Cup ladder. Going toe-to-toe with Dale Earnhardt for the championship, Irvan had matched the Intimidator every step of the way, more competitive on the track than he had ever been in his career. But a Saturday morning practice session at Michigan turned Irvan’s fight for the title into a fight for his life.
No one really knows 100% what happened, but drivers on the track said a left-front tire went down on Irvan’s No. 28 car that day, sending it hard into the turn 2 wall. Knocked unconscious from the incident, Irvan was at the mercy of rescue workers, who frantically worked to remove him from the car once they got to the cockpit, performing an emergency tracheotomy that probably saved his life. Irvan was quickly airlifted to Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was given only a 10% chance of surviving the night. With the NASCAR community already reeling from the loss of four Cup drivers in Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr in the last year-and-a-half, it was a dark day for the sport, as several feared yet another shining star had been snuffed out far too soon.
However, Irvan was a fighter and began to defy the odds that had failed several others. He survived the night, and although the 48 hours afterward were very touch and go, the California native slowly began improving. By September, Irvan was upgraded to “fair” condition and removed from his ventilator, then began what would amount to nothing less than a remarkable recovery. Despite having missed 11 races of the season that year, Irvan was well enough to be present at the Waldorf Astoria for the NASCAR Banquet that December, pledging a return to racing as soon as he was physically able.
After a year of vigorous rehabilitation, Irvan was cleared to race by NASCAR on September 16, 1995. By 1996, he was racing the series full-time again back in the Texaco/Havoline No. 28 car, winning twice and finishing 10th in the points. But it took nearly three years after his tragic accident for Irvan’s career to truly come full circle.
In June of 1997, Irvan got his first win at Michigan in what was an emotional Sunday afternoon. Leading 33 of 200 laps on the day, Irvan won the Miller 400 by 2.964 seconds over Bill Elliott. Later that year, Irvan went on to finish fourth in the second race at Michigan in the same season, putting his demons at the track to rest for once and for all.
“I had no idea I’d be able to race at Michigan again, let alone win the race,” Irvan said in Victory Lane that June. “I had never won at MIS [before the crash] so that makes this very special. It was tough to drive with tears in my eyes, and I wasn’t crying because I was sad.” Ernie Irvan will never forget it, and neither will the fans that were there that day.
Some Facts About Ernie Irvan
- Irvan was voted by MSNBC as one of the Top 10 Greatest Sports Comebacks of all time.
- Irvan qualified 20th for his Winston Cup debut (September 13, 1987), but only finished 35 laps due to an overheated engine.
- After 13 seasons on tour that produced 15 wins in 313 starts, Irvan officially announced his retirement with his wife and children by his side September 3, 1999 at a press conference in Darlington, S.C.
- After racing, Irvan founded the Race2Safety Foundation in 2004 to promote awareness of head injuries.
- Irvan led the most miles in the 1994 season despite having only raced in 20 races.