Born: January 13th, 1959
Birthplace: Salinas, Calif.
Marital Status: Married, Kim
Children: Jordan, Jared
Top Five: 68
Top 10: 124
Money Won: $11,624,617
As the Nextel Cup tour heads out west to California this week, we profile one of the Golden State’s native sons and one of the most popular drivers and personalities in NASCAR. Ernie Irvan of Modesto, Calif. was part of a group of drivers who came to the sport in the late ’80s and early ’90s from a part of the United States not traditionally known for producing circle track drivers. Before Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Robby Gordon, there was Ernie “Swervin'” Irvan. Irvan was bestowed that nickname following a series of incidents in the early ’90s that raised the ire of a number of drivers. Through that however, one of the more popular drivers in the garage area would emerge, proving that everyone who is contrite should get a second chance. What we didn’t know, was that Ernie would need a third and fourth chance as well.
Irvan was born in Salinas, Calif. on January 13th, 1959. He is the son of Vic and Jo Irvan, who’s family moved to California following the Dust Bowls in Oklahoma during the 1930s. Ernie’s career had a rather inauspicious start before his days of driving two of the most recognizable cars in motorsports. He began racing go-karts at the tender age of nine years old. He would win the California Karting Championship when he was 15 years old, clearing the way for him to compete in stock cars. So dedicated was Ernie that he missed his high school graduation to race at Riverside, Calif. He decided to roll the dice and leave California for NASCAR country with only $700 and some tools. He stopped along the way in Las Vegas, rolled the dice again, and brought that total to $900. He was actually working as a welder, assembling grandstand seating at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he was approached by Dale Earnhardt Sr. about driving.
Ernie made his Winston Cup debt in September of 1987 at Richmond under the old Fairgrounds configuration. He started 20th and finished 29th driving a car owned and sponsored by Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. His debut only lasted 35 laps, the result of an overheated engine. Irvan appeared about out of luck after a three-race stint with Earnhardt, but following a strong eighth-place run at Charlotte where a couple of weeks earlier he had been welding seats together, he caught the eye of owner DK Ulrich. He would drive the No. 2 Kroger Chevrolet (and Pontiac) in 1988 for Ulrich, narrowly losing rookie of the year to former Modified star Ron Bouchard in the closest Rookie of the Year points battle in history (three points). He drove again for Ulrich in 1989. As the 1990 season approached, it appeared Ernie was out of luck yet again, as sponsorship for the 1990 season failed to materialize. Three races into the 1990 season he took over what would become one of the most visible cars on the tour, the No. 4 Kodak cars owned by Larry McClure. It was a good fit, as the outsider from California drove for a team based not in North Carolina, but in Abingdon, Va. They got off to a fast start, with Ernie qualifying 30th at Atlanta, but ending the day with a remarkable third-place finish, the first top five of his career.
Ernie’s first win came in 1990 in the Goody’s 500 night race at Bristol, Tenn. However, 1990 was also the year where he triggered a wreck at Darlington in the TransSouth 500 that nearly claimed the life of Neil Bonnett. Bonnett sustained a severe head injury that forced him into semi-retirement, and left him unable to compete until he attempted a comeback in 1993.
With a win under his belt, Irvan and the No. 4 team were poised to make some noise in 1991. They served notice right off the bat at Daytona by qualifying on the front row in second place. Irvan would lead 29 laps on his way to winning the 1991 Daytona 500. With three laps to go there was a wreck on the backstretch, involving primarily the man who was responsible for getting him there, Earnhardt. The race would finish under caution, and Irvan would be flagged the winner of the Great American Race.
The Morgan-McClure team had tasted early success, but a few on-track incidents had ruffled a few feathers amongst his competitors. It all came to a head in May, when the Winston 500, run on a Monday due to a rainout, was the site of one of the most memorable “Big Ones” in history. Irvan had run well in the race, leading 18 laps, but was now stuck in the middle of the pack, running three-wide with Kyle Petty and Mark Martin. Irvan had been trying to get in line for a couple of laps and in the process put himself and his machine in a precarious position, bouncing off of Martin and into Petty’s Mello Yello Pontiac. This turned both machines back into Martin, turning him sideways. Wally Dallenbach Jr. had no where to go, and struck Martin’s Folgers Thunderbird in the nose as it turned backwards. Air got under the No. 6 car, standing it on its nose in the middle of traffic. What resulted was a 20-car junkyard in north central Alabama that left Petty with a broken leg, sidelining him for 12 races. Alan Kulwicki was critical of Irvan’s driving and upset over almost losing his feet in the accident. Kulwicki was hit in the door, the side of the car crushed all the way over against the clutch and brake pedals. Martin was quoted by racing publication Southern Motor Racing as saying Irvan was “out of control.”
It was time for an intervention. Ernie had a sit-down with Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and director of competition Dick Beaty. The point was made to Ernie that if he was hungry, there wasn’t a driver in the series that would give him a sandwich. Irvan asked to speak at a drivers’ meeting to address the lack of respect he had shown his fellow drivers. A noticeably contrite, shaken and emotional Irvan addressed his fellow competitors before the Die Hard 500 in July at Talladega, and asked for a second chance to earn the respect and friendship back of those whom he had disappointed with his actions. It was a sincere moment, the likes of which has not been seen since. Today we are rewarded with drivers who, while the video replay of an accident of their making is shown, will deny any involvement with a straight-face, blame the other guy, rattle off some of their sponsors or go to the cliched, “that’s just racing”-card. While Irvan was one of the first successful drivers to come from the West, he is also one of the last drivers with the honor and courage to admit a mistake and ask for forgiveness. And actually mean it.
The next week at Watkins Glen, he was in a last-lap duel with Martin, who a few months earlier had questioned his driving and self-control. Going into turn 1, Martin made a move on Irvan under braking. Mark had driven in too deep and was about to wreck Irvan. Martin, out of respect to Irvan, intentionally spun his car to keep from taking him out. Ernie not only was receiving respect by his fellow drivers, but he also had solidified his versatility, having won his first three races on a short track, superspeedway and now a road course. He further established himself as one of the top road racers the following year at Sears Point in Sonoma, Calif. He was penalized for jumping the start of the race, which would leave him starting dead last. With only three caution periods to assist him, Ernie managed to make it all up, and outlasted Terry Labonte to take his fifth career victory. He was an unwitting factor in the final race of the 1992 season, when six drivers headed into the Hooters 500 with a chance to win the Winston Cup championship. Irvan suffered a cut tire, lost control of his No. 4 Kodak Lumina on lap 285, and inadvertently took out championship contender Davey Allison. It would not be the last time Irvan got up close and personal with the No. 28 Havoline Ford.
On April 1st, 1993, the racing world was shocked and saddened by the death of defending champion Kulwicki in a plane crash. Later that year, Ernie’s friend Allison was also lost in a bizarre helicopter crash as he was attempting to land in the infield at Talladega where he planned to watch a friend test a racecar. This tragic occurrence left one of the most treasured rides in motorsports available. It was 1993, and it was in vogue to run a Ford. Robert Yates Racing was the top Ford team at the time, a single-car operation with Larry McReynolds turning the wrenches, and monster Blue Oval horsepower under the hood. Irvan desperately wanted to drive the car that was vacated by Davey’s passing. A bitter dispute between him and owner Larry McClure erupted, eventually culminating in a lawsuit. Regardless, Irvan would leave the No. 4 car to drive for RYR.
The combination was an instant success. Irvan finished fifth in his first outing with RYR, and would qualify second in the next two races. He and the No. 28 car went on to score two wins as the 1993 season wound down, one at Martinsville, and again later at Charlotte, in an epic end of race battle with his two long-time friends Martin and Earnhardt. The track where he was discovered welding seats, and where he scored his first top-10 finish, was the site of his latest triumph. In 1994, they got the ball rolling again with back-to-back wins at Richmond and Atlanta, and again at Sears Point, notching his second win at that track. Irvan, along with Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt and Martin were now dominating the series, and had earned the distinction “The Big Four,” as each driver was consistently winning poles, races and finishing in the top five for the season and the year prior. Everything was going well until the second race at Michigan in August. A tire failed on the backstretch during practice, turning the No. 28 car head-on into the wall at over 170 mph. In the blink of an eye, Irvan was unconscious, unresponsive and barely clinging to life. The cursed No. 28 car, which twice in 1992 had its driver Allison cut out and rushed to the hospital, was cut open yet again, with its driver’s life hanging in the balance with massive brain and internal injuries.
Miraculously, Ernie regained consciousness during a visit from friends Earnhardt and Martin. He was lying in his hospital bed on a ventilator, unresponsive with Vaseline smeared over his eyes to keep them from drying out. When he heard the sounds of his friend’s voices, he began stirring, his hand moving towards them, reaching out to them. Ernie would have a long road of recovery ahead of him the next four months. He would recover well enough to walk on stage at the season ending Awards Banquet to claim his True Value Hard Charger Award. Even though he missed nearly half the season in a hospital bed, he still was in the top five more than any other driver, and tied Geoff Bodine for pole positions. Ernie would return to the track wearing an eye patch, leaving Martin to quip, “Ernie with one eye is better than most of these guys with two.” Dale Jarrett left the Joe Gibbs Racing team at the end of 1994 to be the interim driver for the No. 28 Ford. Ernie would return later in 1995, driving the No. 88 car, which has since been a mainstay of the RYR organization. In 1996, Ernie would score his first win since the injury, at the Jiffy Lube 300 in Loudon, N.H.
In 1997, Irvan would return to the Michigan International Speedway, determined to beat the track that nearly took his life just a few years earlier. In what was an emotional scene, with his wife Kim brought to tears in the final few circuits, Ernie led 33 laps en route to winning the Miller 400. Ernie was equally moved in his victory lane interview, as were the 150,000-plus in attendance and millions more watching on television. It would be his last year in the fabled No. 28 machine, as he was headed to the newly-formed MB2 Motorsports team. Sponsored by Skittles, the No. 36 car was just as visible as the yellow No. 4 Kodak car he had become famous for piloting. He suffered a concussion following a wreck at Talladega that year and would sit out the final three races.
His 1999 season would be short-lived, and ultimately his last. Irvan again was dealt an unkind blow at the track that nearly killed him. During practice for the August Busch Grand National race at MIS, Irvan’s car was struck broadside, leaving him again unconscious and airlifted to a hospital in Jackson, Mich. It was then that Irvan decided that being able to drive his daughter to school was more important than driving around in a circle on Sunday. In an emotional press conference two weeks later in September, Ernie Irvan would retire from competition.
Ernie maintains his involvement with head injury awareness as part of “LAPS” (Leadership and Awareness to Promote Safety), along with fellow driver and head injury victim Jerry Nadeau. He has begun organizing and participating in walks around racetracks, as well as an annual walk around MIS, the site of some of the lowest and highest points of his career and life. Ernie was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and elected to the Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2002.
James Kincer contributed to this article.