Like many other great race car drivers, Virgil Earnest Irvan, better known as Ernie Irvin, started driving karts when he was just a kid. He won the California Championship at the age of 15. By the time he was 16, he had already switched to stock cars and won his first race on asphalt at Stockton 99 Speedway in California. That was just the beginning for Irvin; he set out to race every weekend in Madera and Stockton and was no stranger to victory lane. He even missed his own high school graduation to compete at Riverside.
In 1982, Irvin headed to the heart of the racial country: North Carolina. He left California with only $ 700 in his pocket, but made a pit stop in Las Vegas and ended up with $ 200 more. Upon arriving in Charlotte, he supported himself by doing odd jobs, most of which focused on the race track. He did some welding work on the grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway, built race cars, and unloaded Ken Schrader’s moving van.
Irvin’s debut in Winston Cup racing was in 1987 at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway driving the # 56 Chevy Monte Carlo sponsored by Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. He was voted Rookie of the Year in 1988, but lost to Ken Bouchard by three points in the closest battle in Cup history. In 1991, Irvin won the sport’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. Only four years earlier he had watched the race on a small black and white television while working at a car wash to support his family and his early career.
Irvin began to develop a very aggressive driving style and earned the nickname “Swerving Irvan” from his fellow drivers. Some of his controversial maneuvers led to a televised apology at one of the drivers’ meetings before a race. Irvin was driving for Morgan McClure Motorsports when his friend Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash in 1993. To honor his friend, he wanted to take over Davey’s car at Robert Yates Racing, but MMM didn’t want to release him or some nasty. The demand would soon follow. He ended up taking control of the # 28 Texaco / Havoline Ford after being fired by MMM and went to the winner’s circle in his fourth outing with RYR. He dedicated the victory to Davey Allison.
In 1994, Ernie Irvin was in a near-fatal accident when a tire went flat and sent him hitting the wall at over 170 mph. He suffered severe brain and lung injuries that left him with only a 10% chance of survival. With medical intervention and therapy, he recovered and was able to take the stage and receive the True Value Hard Charger award just 2 months after the accident. Irvin’s focus was on making a full recovery and regaining his strength and after months of rehab and strength training, NASCAR cleared him to return to the race track.
Exactly five years after his near-fatal accident, Irvin hit the wall again in a practice session and was rushed to the hospital with brain and lung injuries. Less than two weeks after the accident, with his wife and two children by his side, he tearfully announced his retirement. In 2007, Irvin was still involved in racing, serving as crew chief for his son Jared’s fourth midget team. Today he promotes Race2safety, a foundation that he started and that advocates for awareness and prevention of head injuries, especially in children.