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Retired NASCAR driver, Ernie Irvan, was born on January 13, 1959 in Salinas, California. Irvan's comeback after a serious head injury at Michigan International Speedway earned him numerous awards. He is inducted in numerous halls of fame and was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
Ernie Irvan began his racing career driving karts in California in 1968 at the age of nine. He won the California Championship at the age of 15. In 1974, Irvan finished second in the country in his class at the national kart championship races. In 1975, Irvan moved up to stock cars at the age of 16 at Stockton 99 Speedway and was victorious in his first race on asphalt in a semi-main event. From then until 1981 Ernie raced every weekend at Madera and Stockton, CA, winning numerous feature events. He missed his high school graduation ceremony to race at Riverside, CA. During this time, he lost best friend Tim Williamson in a racing accident at Riverside, just months before he was slated to test in Winston Cup.
In 1982, Irvan left California with $700 in his pocket and everything he owned loaded into his pickup truck and a homemade trailer, and he headed east to North Carolina. Worried about running out of money, Irvan stopped in Las Vegas and managed to leave with an additional $200.
Irvan supported himself in Charlotte, North Carolina by welding grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway, unloaded Ken Schrader's moving van, built racecars, and other odd jobs. During that time, he won nine races driving in the Late Model Series at Concord Speedway. Running a Firebird, Irvan won two races his first year and eleven races the next year.
Irvan met a car-builder named Marc Reno and they became partners in their racing ventures. Before long, Irvan made his Winston Cup debut on September 13th at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway driving the #56 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The car, built and prepared by Irvan and Reno, was sponsored by Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. Irvan qualified 20th but was sidelined after 35 laps after the car's engine overheated. He finished 29th and won $860. Since the car pocketed so little money, Irvan was spotted by long-time owner/driver D.K. Ulrich. Irvan made three starts in Ulrich's #6 car, finishing 15th at Martinsville, 22nd at North Wilkesboro Speedway, and 19th at Riverside. In October, Irvan drove the #56, again sponsored by Dale Earnhardt, in his first Winston Cup start at Charlotte, starting 36th, leading Lap 128, and finishing 8th.
In 1988, Ernie Irvan made a bid at NASCAR Rookie of the Year, driving Ulrich's #2 Kroger Chevrolets and Pontiacs. Irvan competed in 25 of the 29 Winston Cup Series events, losing Rookie-of-the-Year honors to Ken Bouchard by three points (242-239) in the closest battle in Winston Cup history. Irvan's best finish of the year was 11th at Martinsville in September. He finished 26th in the final points standings with winnings for the year totaling $96,370. In 1989 Irvan started all 29 races in his first full year in the Winston Cup Series behind the wheel of Ulrich's U. S. Racing Pontiac. Irvan started 25th at Bristol in April and caught leader Mark Martin after 38 laps. Irvan went on to lead 56 laps before being sidelined in an accident on lap 167. Irvan's sixth place finish at Martinsville in September gave him his best of four Top-10 finishes for the year. Irvan finished 22nd in final standings for the year with winnings totaling $155,239.
After sponsorship problems plagued Ulrich's team, Irvan left to race for Junie Donlavey, who had procured a sponsorship program with True Cure. True Cure failed to fulfill its financial obligations, and after three races, Irvan was told he could seek other opportunities. He moved over to Morgan-McClure Motorsports' (MMM) #4 Kodak Oldsmobile, filling the vacancy left by Phil Parsons. After starting 30th in his first race for the new team (Atlanta in March), Irvan charged to the front and grabbed a 3rd place finish - the first Top-5 of his career. The next race at Darlington Speedway, he came under controversy after being involved in an accident that nearly claimed the life of Neil Bonnett. Irvan responded by then grabbing his first Winston Cup pole position at Bristol in the spring. He won his first Winston Cup race in the Busch 500 at Bristol on August 25th. Ernie wrapped up the season with three poles, one victory, six Top-5's and 13 Top-10's, winning $535,280 and finishing ninth in the final standings.
In February 1991, Ernie Irvan drove the Morgan-McClure Chevrolet to victory in the Daytona 500, stock car racing's most prestigious and then most lucrative race. Four years earlier, Irvan watched the 500 on a borrowed black and white TV while washing cars, one of several jobs he worked to support both his family and his struggling career. Irvan's next victory came later in the season at Watkins Glen International Raceway. The race was marred by the death of popular veteran J. D. McDuffie. Irvan ended the year with two victories, three second-place and four fourth-place finishes among his eleven Top-5 and nineteen Top-10 finishes in 29 starts. He finished the year fifth in Winston Cup driver standings and won $1,079,017. During this time, Irvan came under more controversy due to his aggressive driving style, earning him the nickname "Swerving Irvan" before he apologized to his fellow drivers in a televised speech during the drivers' meeting before a race that year.
Irvan's 1992 season was highlighted by three more victories - Sonoma in June; Daytona in July; and Talladega in July. He had three pole positions, nine Top-5's and eleven Top-10's, $996,885 in winnings, and finished eleventh in the final season points. He suffered a broken collarbone in an accident during a Busch Series race in March at Atlanta and twelve finishes of 24th or worse including seven Did Not Finishes (DNF's). On November 21, 1992 he married the former Kim Baker.
Irvan continued his tenure with Morgan-McClure in 1993, adding poles at Dover (June) and Daytona (July) and a victory at Talladega in May. In total, while driving for Morgan-McClure, Irvan obtained nine poles, seven wins and 51 Top-10 finishes in 105 starts. Irvan's friend Davey Allison died in a helicopter crash on July 12th. Irvan wanted to take his place at Robert Yates Racing (RYR) in the #28 Texaco/Havoline Ford. MMM didn't want him to, and the result was a nasty lawsuit. Irvan was fired from the ride in the fall, he took over the car at Darlington (September) where he started 10th and finished 5th. Ernie's first victory with RYR came in his 4th start with the team when he won at Martinsville later that same month. Irvan dedicated his victory that day to Allison and then followed that victory two weeks later with one at Charlotte in which he led all but six laps. Ernie scored five front-row positions (including two poles) and two victories in his nine races that season with RYR. Ernie was ranked ninth in driver standings at the time of his departure from Morgan-McClure, but he rose to sixth in the final standings.
In 1994, Irvan was a contender for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship throughout the first 20 races of the season. Entering the GM Goodwrench Dealer 400 at Michigan in August, Ernie matched Dale Earnhardt win for win with three each, led in Top-5 finished and winnings and trailed Earnhardt by 27 points after having led the standings for most of the season.
His chase for the championship ended on an early morning Saturday practice session at Michigan. According to drivers on the track, a right front tire deflated, sending Irvan's car into the Turn Two wall at over 170 miles per hour.
Emergency workers at the track extricated him from the car, and he was immediately airlifted to Saint Joseph's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was diagnosed with critical brain and lung injuries and given only a 10% chance of surviving the night. Irvan clung to life for the first two days. By early September, Irvan was listed in "fair" condition and was removed from ventilator support. A few weeks later he was deemed well enough to be transferred to the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation in Charlotte. A few weeks following the transfer, Ernie appeared and addressed the fans at the Charlotte Motor Speedway at the start of the UAW-GM 500.
Less than two months later, at the gala NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York, Irvan walked on stage at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel's Grand Ballroom to receive the True Value Hard Charger Award. Despite missing the final 11 races at the end of the season, Ernie had still ranked among the top five for the most miles driven. In addition, Ernie tied Geoff Bodine for the most poles won during the season.
Throughout the first eight months of 1995, Irvan remained focused on returning to Winston Cup racing. He went through rehabilitation and strength training to regain his physical strength. On September 16th, NASCAR cleared Irvan for competition.
His first attempt at qualifying for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville ended when the field was set by points standings after qualifying was rained-out. Irvan qualified his truck on the outside pole for the following weekend's event at North Wilkesboro Speedway on September 30th. Six laps after the green flag was dropped, Irvan passed pole sitter Mike Skinner for the lead on Lap 6. Irvan led another 23 laps before mechanical problems sidelined him. The next day, October 1, he made his return to Winston Cup racing in the 88 Texaco-Havoline Ford of RYR. After starting in seventh position, he advanced to third by Lap 47 and took the lead on Lap 125. He held the lead for 31 laps and finished on the lead lap in sixth position.
He was sent to the back of the field at Phoenix International Raceway after he wrecked in practice. Irvan started his back-up car last in the 44-car field. He quickly moved through the field to seventh by Lap 75, then took the lead by taking on only two fresh tires during the first round of pit stops. Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt had four new tires, but he could not catch Irvan in the next 110 laps. Before he retired with engine failure on Lap 197 of the 312-lap race, Irvan led more laps than any driver.
Irvan starting 26th in the 1995 season ending race at Atlanta. He piloted the #88 Texaco-Havoline Ford in fourth by the middle of the race and advanced to second before a late race pit stop relegated him to a seventh place finish. In three starts, Irvan had two Top-10 finishes and earned $54,875.
1997 marked his final season driving the Robert Yates Racing Texaco-Havoline Ford. Irvan notched his 15th career win. The victory came in June at Michigan Speedway, the track that nearly claimed his life three years earlier. Ernie ran up 5 Top-5 finishes, 13 Top-10's and 2 Pole positions and earned $1,614,281. Irvan finished 14th in the Winston Cup Points standings.
In 1998, Ernie Irvan joined MB2 Motorsports to drive the #36 Skittles Pontiac. During the year he scored 11 Top-10 finishes with three pole positions despite missing the final three races while recovering from injuries suffered at Talladega in October. Irvan finished the season 19th in the Winston Cup points standings, earning $1,476,141. The highlight of 1998 was the birth of his son, Jared, on February 9th.
Irvan continued driving the #36 for MB2 in 1999, but with a different sponsor. M&M Mars (parent corporation of Skittles) decided to emblazon the popular "M&M's" characters on the car.
On August 20, exactly 5 years after his near fatal accident there, Irvan crashed at Michigan while driving his own #84 Irvan-Simo Federated Auto Parts Pontiac in a practice session for the Busch Series race. Ernie was again airlifted from the track and was diagnosed with a mild head injury and a bruised lung as a result of the accident.
Less than two weeks later, on September 3, 1999, surrounded by his wife and two children, Irvan announced his retirement from driving at a tearful press conference in Darlington, SC. While he would fully recover before the end of the 1999 season, the reasoning for the retirement was to prevent future incidents and he had a family to support.
Irvan finished his Winston Cup career as a driver with 15 victories, 22 poles, 68 Top-5's, 124 Top-10's and over 11 million dollars in career earnings.
Afterwards, Irvan announced he was planning to start a Cup team with Mark Simo with sponsorship from Federated Auto Parts, but it never materialized. After a fire in his house destroyed all of his trophies in March 2000, NASCAR presented Irvan with replicas of the lost trophies. As of 2007, he is the crew chief on his son Jared's quarter midget.
Ernie Irvan attended five NASCAR races in 2006, promoting a foundation that he formed called Race2safety as an advocate for head-injury awareness. The foundation promotes awareness and prevention of head injuries, especially among children.
Irvan attended the 50th annual Daytona 500 and was one of the 24 grand marshals giving the command to start the engines.