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Waid’s World: Ernie Irvan’s Successful Career Included a Brush With Death

For part of his career, NASCAR Cup driver Virgil Earnest “Ernie” Irvan was considered something of a menace on the track — at least by many of his fellow competitors.

There was a reason for that. Ernie Irvan (no one ever called him Virgil), was not a subtle driver. He was a hard charger whose inherent talent fueled his rise from near obscurity to the highest ranks of NASCAR. But that went pretty much unrecognized. Several mishaps, including one at Darlington Raceway that seriously injured Neil Bonnett, made him a target of disdain.

He got the nickname “Swervin’ Irvan.” A gag poster in the shape of an eye chart said: “Ernie, Don’t Hit Me You SOB.” Suffice it to say there were many more such names and creations.

It was not unusual for Irvan to be associated with mayhem among competitors, fans and media, and indeed, Irvan knew this. So much so that he stood up in a driver’s meeting and told all in attendance that he knew of his reputation, apologized for it and would do all in his power to become the kind of driver that would earn everyone’s respect. His short but meaningful speech received applause.

And Irvan did become a much different driver. But in one man’s opinion, it was only after he nearly died following a severe accident that he earned universal respect.

In 1982, Irvan headed south from California. With $700 in his pocket and everything he owned loaded into a pickup truck, he drove to Charlotte where, to help ends meet as much as possible, he welded grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In 1987, he made his Winston Cup debut at Richmond Raceway, driving a car built by himself and Marc Reno and sponsored by Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet.

For the next two years, Irvan campaigned with longtime independent driver/team owner D.K. Ulrich. A lack of funds terminated the union.

It was the same in 1990, when Irvan hooked up with veteran team owner Junie Donlavey. Their association lasted only a few races before it was discovered that promised sponsorship was not forthcoming.

It was then Irvan finally caught a break.

At that time, Phil Parsons was driving for respected team owner Larry McClure, whose Abingdon, Va.-based organization was beginning to flex its muscles. Unfortunately for Parsons, he crashed at Richmond early in the 1990 season. Afterward, he could not recall what happened and asked McClure about it — more than once.

The frustrated team owner ordered Parsons to go to the infield medical center. After that, Parsons never drove for McClure again. Instead, Irvan was put behind the wheel for the next race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In that first outing with McClure, Irvan finished third and delighted the team’s supporters.

But things changed dramatically at the next race, the TranSouth 500 at Darlington. Early in the event, Irvan spun out and was hopelessly out of contention. Later, on a restart from a caution period, he battled with leader Ken Schrader to regain a lost lap.

Irvan slipped sideways, hit Schrader and created a 13-car wreck that collected Neil Bonnett, driving for the Wood Brothers. Bonnett was airlifted to a Florence hospital where it was learned he had sustained head injuries and severe amnesia.

Save for a couple of races in 1993, Bonnett’s career was over.

Irvan received harsh criticism from fellow drivers, mostly because his aggressive driving led to an avoidable incident. He was 10 laps down. It was inexcusable.

“Ernie is in over his head,” Sterling Marlin said. “It was just plain stupid.”

Irvan’s knack for aggressive driving didn’t go away, and he was involved in other controversial incidents. During the 1991 season, he was given that “Swervin’ Irvan” moniker by fellow competitors. Irvan knew of his reputation and wanted to change it. He consulted other drivers, among them Dale Earnhardt, about how best to do that.

That led to his speech in the driver’s meeting for the 1991 DieHard 500 at Talladega. The session was on live TV, a rare occurrence, and as was later learned, done solely to broadcast Irvan’s apology.

Irvan’s association with McClure, which lasted nearly three full years, was inarguably a very successful one. It produced eight victories, including the 1991 Daytona 500 and 1993 Winston 500 at Talladega.

Late in 1993, Irvan joined Robert Yates Racing as the replacement for popular Davey Allison, who died following a helicopter accident at Talladega. Irvan won two of the nine races he ran for RYR that season, which began an association that would see him become a championship contender.

He was locked in a close title battle with Earnhardt as the 1994 season moved to the Aug. 21 Goodwrench Dealer 400 at Michigan International Speedway. During practice the day before the race, crew chief Larry McReynolds wanted Irvan to pit because the car was not handling well.

Irvan chose to run one more lap and his tire blew as he entered the first turn. The car slammed into the wall at over 170 miles per hour.

Irvan suffered a basilar skull fracture and lung injuries. He had to be given a tracheotomy en route to the hospital and was given just a 10% chance to live.

After a long period of recovery, which included rehabilitation and strength training, Irvan returned to RYR and Winston Cup competition on Oct. 1, 1995 at North Wilkesboro.

Irvan won three more times before his career tapered off and was effectively ended in a Busch Series practice session at Michigan, of all places. Again, he was airlifted to the hospital and, again, he sustained head injuries.

It happened exactly five years after his near-fatal incident at the track.

On Sept. 3, 1999 at Darlington, surrounded by his wife and family, Irvan announced his retirement. By the time he did that, “Swervin’ Irvan” had become a thing of the past, retired to NASCAR lore. He had earned a measure of respect, not only for his changed behavior on the track, but also for something else.

He had beaten strong odds against him. He had cheated death.

About the author

Steve Waid has been in  journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.

Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing.  For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”

In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.

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Ernie Irvan was my family’s favorite. He was very aggressive but very versatile too, a threat to win at any track. But in the prime years of his career he wasn’t as young as some or as “cool” as others. Therefore he’s largely forgotten in NASCAR today. Which is fitting as my once-rabid family has now nearly forgotten NASCAR as well.

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