NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Best of Nikki Krone: Let’s Not Forget Kenny Irwin Jr. & Tony Roper

When driver Paul Dana lost his life last weekend during IRL practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway, race fans not only took the time to remember Dana, but also other famous drivers who have lost their lives on the racetrack. Many race fans’ thoughts automatically turned to Dale Earnhardt, whose death a little more than five years ago completely rocked not only the racing community, but the entire sports world as well. Or maybe their thoughts were of young Adam Petty, whose life was cut short in May of 2000 during a practice crash at the New Hampshire International Speedway, whose death inspired the Victory Junction Gang Camp his parents built in his memory. The loss of the legend known as the “Intimidator” and the future star and grandson of “The King” still haunt many, and left huge holes in the sport and in the hearts of millions.

Every year, thousands of people continue to pay tribute to Earnhardt and Petty and their lives that were cut short too soon. When a racecar driver dies, television programs all over also highlight the tragic deaths of these two racers, particularly Earnhardt. There are, however, countless others who seem almost forgotten. Drivers whose stories are not as well known and whose tributes are not as widely publicized, but they are men and women who gave their lives to their greatest passion and were taken way too soon.

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Almost every local short track across the country has its own story or stories of a racer who lost their life on the track. Unfortunately, it happens too frequently. It’s a shame that these stories don’t get the attention that is received when someone like Earnhardt or Petty passes, but it is understandable. These local drivers aren’t famous, and they aren’t superstars. Most often they are just local men and women who work during the week to support their families, then race on the weekend to support their dreams. But their stories are just as sad, and just as important to tell as those whose names we know well.

But it isn’t just the local racer whose stories seem to be forgotten; it happens in NASCAR, too. As often as we hear about drivers like Petty and Earnhardt, we don’t hear enough about two other men who lost their lives around the same time period while racing in NASCAR’s highest divisions. Those drivers are the late Kenny Irwin Jr. and the late Tony Roper.

Irwin Jr. lost his life at the same track, in the same turn, two months to the day Petty lost his in turn 3 at the New Hampshire International Speedway on July 7, 2000. Driving the No. 42 Bellsouth Ford for Felix Sabates, Irwin was participating in a practice session for the Cup Series when his car hit the wall while going approximately 150 mph, then flipped onto its roof. It was later announced that sadly, Irwin did not survive the massive injuries he sustained, and at 30 years old, he was gone.

Irwin got his racing start at the age of five running quarter-midgets in his hometown of Indianapolis, Ind. His love of racing eventually led him to midgets, sprint cars and the Silver Crown Series before taking him to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 1996. In his short time in the CTS, Irwin competed in just 32 races, but earned two victories, eight top fives, 11 top 10s and one pole. Irwin made his Cup Series debut in 1997, driving the No. 27 Hasbro/Action Performance Ford for David Blair, and in his very first race, the 27-year-old driver qualified second and finished eighth. He drove three more races for Blair that season and never started outside the top 15.

After three successful seasons in the NCTS and four races in the Cup Series, Irwin earned a full-time ride in NASCAR’s premier series, driving the famed No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing in 1998. Irwin earned “Rookie of the Year” honors by collecting one pole, one top five and four top 10s. To win the title, he had to beat fellow rookies Steve Park, Jerry Nadeau and Kevin Lepage. In 2000, Irwin began driving the No. 42 Bellsouth Ford for Sabates in what would be his final season. He competed in only 17 events, earning his only top five by finishing fourth at Talladega, one spot behind Earnhardt.

Following his death, his father and mother, Kenny and Reva Irwin, created the “Kenny Irwin Memorial Foundation” and the “Dare to Dream Camp” in their son’s honor. The “Dare to Dream Camp” is located in New Castle, Ind. and is open year-round. The 27-acre, racing-themed camp is for underprivileged, at-risk, neglected and abused children between the ages of six to 17.

There is a quote from Irwin’s parents on the Founders section of the “Dare to Dream Camp” website, which clearly states their reason for creating the camp to honor their son.

“We never knew the extent that Kenny reached out to help those in need. After his death, we received hundreds of letters, telling us stories and situations where Kenny had personally touched their life.”

The website continues by saying, “Kenny never wanted attention for doing a good deed or to be put in the spotlight of someone doing something extraordinary. He just knew he was fortunate and lucky to have the opportunity to do what he truly loved. And he wanted to make that possible for the children he encountered along the way, helping them to have the same opportunities to pursue their dreams.”

Irwin was never married and had no children of his own, but he was loved by and survived by his parents and three sisters.

Tony Roper competed in 60 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races from 1995 to 2000. In that time, he earned one top five and eight top 10s, driving for owners such as Mike Mittler, Bob Brevak and Tom Glory. Roper also competed in 19 Busch Series races, earning three top 10s while driving for owners such as Steve Coulter and Joe Washington.

Roper, the son of Missouri racing legend Dean Roper, begin his racing career in 1986 driving modifieds and late models on the Midwest’s asphalt and dirt tracks. The Fair Grove, Mo. native also competed in the American Speed Association (ASA) from 1992 to 1996, and was the runner-up in the rookie of the year race.

In 2000, Roper signed a two-year deal to drive for Washington Erving Motorsports in the Busch Series, but after qualifying for just three of the first nine races, Roper and the team parted ways. That August, Roper decided to compete in the CTS with old friend and truck owner Mike Mittler, driving the No. 26 Mittler Tools Ford. It was while running in the CTS at the Texas Motor Speedway on October 13, 2000, that Roper lost his life.

On lap 31, Roper’s truck made contact with the No. 43 Petty Dodge driven by Steve Grissom. The contact sent Roper’s truck hard to the right and slamming into the frontstretch wall. Roper never regained consciousness and passed away at 10:55 a.m. the following day due to a severe neck injury.

Roper was only 35 when he died and left behind a wife, Michelle.

Of course, Earnhardt, Petty, Irwin and Roper aren’t the only drivers to die while practicing for or competing in a NASCAR event. Neil Bonnett was killed after a Daytona 500 practice crash in 1994. Rodney Orr was killed two days later while practicing for the Busch race there. John Nemechek, brother of Nextel Cup driver Joe Nemechek, was killed during a CTS race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1997. Clifford Allison was participating in a 1992 Busch Series practice at Michigan International Speedway when he was killed. In 1991, Cup Series driver JD McDuffie was killed in a race at Watkins Glen and is the reason there is now a chicane at the track. Busch Series and ARCA driver Blaise Alexander was killed on October 24, 2001, while going for the win in an ARCA event at Charlotte and Slick Johnson, who raced in the Cup Series and Busch Series, died in 1990 while participating in an ARCA race.

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Park, who was injured during a Busch Series race, and Nadeau, who was injured while practicing for a Nextel Cup event, both suffered severe and potentially life-threatening injuries. Park returned to the track, competing in the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series since his accident, while Nadeau has not returned and may never return to the track as a driver, but continues his involvement in the sport by consulting others.

Other drivers have been killed while traveling to and from the racetrack, most recently Davey Allison dying in a helicopter crash at Talladega and Alan Kulwicki in an airplane crash near Bristol, both happening in 1993.

While Earnhardt’s death may be the biggest tragedy to rock the NASCAR world in recent memory, it is by no means the only one we should remember. Several drivers have lost their lives in pursuit of or while living their dreams, and their stories should be told. Because of each of their deaths, the sport we love is much safer than it was prior to their loss. These drivers did not die in vain; racecar drivers across the country will live through their horrific wrecks because these drivers did not. We should remember that. We should remember them. We should remember ALL of them.

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