Has it really been eight years since we lost Kenny Irwin Jr.?
He’s another one of those “kids” I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know as I spent 15 years at what was then (and will probably always be to me) Indianapolis Raceway Park. The late Bob Daniels (another of those promoters I worked for, and about whom I’ll have a lot to say in a future column) brought me to IRP. I was like a kid in a candy store.
The first of those young phenoms, of course, was Jeff Gordon. There was no doubting this kid’s ability from the start. Once, I saw him get up on two wheels after brushing tires with a car he was trying to pass – he went on and completed the pass with only the left-side wheels on the track. This isn’t an exaggeration, and it was caught by the ESPN cameras. I wish I still had the tape of that race. (Taping those races was a big deal for us. I used to set the VCR and head for the tower. One night I got a radio call from Sue Ross in the office – “John, are we supposed to be taping a hockey game?” Oops.)
Anyway, the progression of outstanding young drivers went on from there. Not all of them made it to NASCAR, but they were all impressive. Mike Bliss, JJ Yeley, Andy Michner, Brian Gerster, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Doug Kalitta, Tim Steele, Tracy Hines… I could go on and on.
One memorable night was one of those “Thursday Night Thunder” ESPN races when Gerster whipped everybody really good. On the drive to the house, my son pointed out that Brian was the only entrant that night who brought his midget in on an open trailer. There are so many memories of those days.
When I first encountered Irwin, he was a little cocky at first, almost condescending at times until he settled down. One night, he had an engine failure in practice and pulled into the road that bisects the infield. He was pushing it back to the pits when I got there with the golf cart and pulled up to the push bar.
Kenny hopped on the left-side nerf bar and yelled, “C’mon, hurry up, you fat %$#*&^!!!”
I got out of the golf cart, walked up to him, and said, “Son, I don’t know if you realize it or not, but I’m trying to help you out here. Another outburst like that and you can wait for the next available push truck – which might be a while since they’re all sitting in pit lane waiting for the next practice session.”
He said, “Sorry, John, sorry,” and I pushed him in.
Later, he looked me up to apologize completely and admitted he needed to show more appreciation to people who were trying to help him. I learned to really like the kid, and he’s another guy I miss.
One of the best stories about those kids in those days is about Stewart. Driving one of Steve Lewis’s No. 9 midgets wrenched by Bob East, Tony was a holy terror on pavement or dirt. On one particular night at IRP (another TV race), however, he wasn’t going anywhere, and midway through the feature Newman took a flip down the backstretch, coming to rest upside down at the entrance to the third turn. Tony skidded to a stop, unbuckled and jumped out to see if his buddy was OK as the red flag came out.
When our fire crew got there, the truck chief, Randy Thomas, was the first one to the car and he said, “OK, Tony, we’ve got it.”
Without missing a beat, Stewart said, “Let me alone, I’m getting all kinds of TV time.”
We eventually gave him a certificate making him an honorary member of our fire-rescue crew.