Saturday, September 19, 2009

SYMT Chase Race #2:

Ernie Irvan

So the loss of Davey left the Robert Yates organization without a driver. But no one saw what was coming next for this race team.

In September, 1993 Ernie Irvan signed up with Robert Yates Racing to drive the Texaco Havoline 28 Ford Thunderbird. His first race for Yates Racing was at Darlington. Ernie started 10th and finished 5th.

Now Ernie Irvan was born Virgil Earnest Irvan on January 13, 1959 in Salinas, California to Vic and Jo Irvan. He is married to Kim Baker Irvan and they have two children: a daughter, Jordan born in 1993 and a son Jared born in 1998.

Ernie began driving racing at the age of nine. He drove go carts from 1968-1974. He won the California Championship when he was 15. Ernie finished 2nd in the national go-cart championship in his class division in 1974.

At the age of 16 Ernie started driving stockcars at Stockton 99 Speedway and he won his first race on asphalt, a semi-main event in 1975. From 1976-1981 Ernie raced at Madera and Stockton, CA every weekend. He even missed his high school graduation to race at Riverside, CA.

In 1982 Ernie left California and headed east to North Carolina. He had his sights set on stockcar racing at the Winston Cup level. So he packed up everything he had, $700 in his pocket, a pickup truck and a homemade trailer and headed for Charlotte.

Once he arrived in Charlotte he took odd jobs so that he could stay where the heart of NASCAR was. Just in hopes that he might attract some owner’s interest in him.

Here is a list of some of the odd jobs he held: welding grandstand seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Lowe’s), built racecars, and he even unloaded Ken Schrader’s moving van.

All the while why he was doing this, he talked, prodded, wheedle, pester any car owner that he could. While he was awaiting for the big time, Irvan won nine races driving in the Late Model Series at Concord Speedway.

In 1984-86 Ernie continued to work odd jobs and he built racecars. Ernie drove a Firebird at the Concord Speedway. He won two races in his first year and eleven races the next.
Finally in 1987 Ernie got his first break into Cup racing. In a car built and prepared by Ernie and Marc Reno, he debuted at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway on September 13. He was driving the #56 Chevrolet Monte Carlo sponsored by, are you ready for this? Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. He qualified 20th. But due to an overheated engine after just 35 laps. He finished 29th and won $860.

In October Ernie was back in the #56 once again sponsored by Dale Earnhardt in his first Cup start at Charlotte. Irvan started 36th, led a lap 128, and he finished 8th. At Riverside, CA he drove the same car, only this time the number was #6 for Ulrich U.S. Racing team. He had two more starts for the Ulrich team one at Martinsville (Sept.) started 24th and finished 15th. The next race was at North Wilkesboro in October. Where he began 25th and finished 22nd. For his first five races in Cup, Ernie had One Top 10 fnish and $23,050 in winnings.

In 1988 Ulrich Racing signed Irvan to drive their #2 Kroger Chevrolets and Pontiacs. He competed in 25 of the 29 Cup Series events. Ernie lost the Rookie of the Year by just three points, to Ken Bouchard. This was the closest battle in Cup history. His best finish was an 11th at Martinsville in September. Irvan finished the year 26th in the points and he had won $96,370.
In 1989 Ernie was once again behind the wheel of the Ulrich’s U.S. Racing car. He started all 29 races that year. One of Ernie’s best showing in 1989 was at Bristol in the April race. He started 25th and by lap 38 he caught the race leader Mark Martin. Ernie would lead 56 laps that day. But due to an accident on lap 167 put him out of the race. He would finish 22nd in the points and his winnings for the year totaled $155,239.

At the beginning of 1990 Irvan was driving the #90 Bull’s Eye Barbecue Sauce Ford for Junie Donlavey. But three races into the year he signed to drive the Morgan McClure #4 Kodak Oldsmobile. His first race with McClure was at Atlanta in March. Ernie started 30th and he never looked back. He went on to finish 3rd in that race. This gave Ernie his first ever top 5 in Cup racing. But it would be only the first of many more.

Then in April at Bristol Ernie won his first pole And in August he won his first Cup race at Bristol. He finished his first year with Morgan McClure with three poles, one win, six top 5s and 13 top 10s. Winning $535,280 and finished 9th in the standings.

In 1991 he won his first Daytona 500. His next win came at Watkins Glen. After his win at Watkins Glen, Irvan had scored a victory on three of four of NASCAR’s type tracks. A short track, a super speedway and a road course. Making him one of NASCAR’s very versatile drivers. He finished 1991 with 2 wins, 11 top 5s, 19 top 10 and a 5th place standing in the points. He won over $1,079,017.

1992 brought about a lot of changes for Ernie. And not all of them were on the track. In 1992 Ernie married his wife Kim Baker on November 21st. Ernie would win three races: Sonoma, CA in June, Daytona in July and Talladega, AL in July. He also won three poles, had 9 top 5s and 11 top 10s. He would only win $996,885 and he would finish 11th in the points. One of the lows was when Ernie broke his collarbone during a Busch series race at Atlanta in March. He had 12 finishes 24th or worse and he also had seven DNFs. Not a very good year for Ernie.

But 1993 would bring about a big change for Ernie and his family as well as his career. While still driving for Morgan-McClure Ernie added two more poles and a victory to his resume. The two poles came at Dover in June and at Daytona in July. And the win came at Talladega in May. His career stats while driving at Morgan-McClure were 9 poles, 7 wins, and 51 top 10s in 105 starts.
Ernie signed to drive for Robert Yates Racing in September. His first race was at Darlington where he started 10th and finished 5th. Ernie’s first win with RYR came in his fourth start. It was Martinsville. And it was very fitting that Ernie dedicated the win to Davey. After all it was Ernie who caused Davey to lose the championship in 1992.

Ernie would later go on to win at Charlotte he lead every lap but six laps for the win. Ernie scored five front row positions including two poles and two wins in his nine races with RYR. Ernie was 9th in the points when he left Morgan-McClure. But he would finish the year 6th in the points after joining RYR.

1994 Ernie was very much a contender for the Winston Cup Championship during the first 20 races of the season. Going into the GM Goodwrench Dealer 400 at Michigan in August Ernie and Dale Earnhardt were tied with three wins each for the season. Ernie led in top 5 finishes and winnings and trailed Earnhardt by only 27 points. Ernie had led the standings for most of the season.

But once again tragedy struck the 28 team. During an early Saturday morning practice session, Ernie blew a right front tire sending the car into the Turn Two wall at over 170 miles per hour. This wreck would leave Ernie fighting for his life.

Track emergency workers worked frantically to get him extracted from the car. He was immediately airlifted to Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI. Where he was diagnosed with critical brain and lung injuries and he was only given a 10% chance of surviving the night.

But Irvan has a fighting spirit that just would not let him die. As the doctors worked to keep him alive his stubborn refusal to leave behind his wife and young daughter brought Ernie back from the brink of death. By the time September rolled around Ernie was listed in “fair” condition and he was removed from the ventilator. A few weeks later the doctors decided that Ernie was in good enough condition to be moved to Charlotte to the Charlotte Institute of Rehabilitation. It was only a few short weeks later that Ernie was at the Charlotte Motor Speedway where he addressed the fans before the stat of the UAW-GM race.

When the Awards Banquet was held in New York during the month of December Ernie, was in attendance and he walked on the stage to receive the True Value Hard Charger Award. Even though there was still races left in the season, he had still raced among the top five for more miles than any other driver that year. Plus Ernie tied Geoff Bodine for the most poles during the season.

The beginning of 1995 found Ernie making huge strives to returning to the racecar. Ernie was so determined to get back into a race car and prove that he could still race with the best of them. Ernie would be put through many challenges on his way back to NASCAR. He put himself though very rigorous workouts to help him with his physical strength. He underwent extensive medical exams and procedures all just to prove that he was ready to get back into a car.

Ernie went through everything that the medical professionals and NASCAR could throw at him. Finally NASCAR cleared Ernie to get back into the car. The date ws September 16, 13 months after the wreck that nearly ended his life had happened.

Ernie first attempted to qualify for the Truck race at Martinsville. But due to rain, Ernie was not able to qualify. The following week at North Wilkesboro, September 30, Ernie qualified on the outside pole. Within six laps of the race, Ernie was out front leading. He lead for 23 laps before he had mechanical problems that put him out of the race.

That same weekend the Cup Series was in North Wilkesboro. The date was October 1, Ernie made his return to NASCAR Cup racing. This time instead of driving the 28 Texaco Havoline Ford, Dale Jarrett had taken over this ride when Ernie got hurt, Ernie was in the 88 Texaco Havoline Ford. Ernie had qualified 7th, and by lap 47 he was third. Ernie took the lead on Lap 125 and he lead for 31 laps. That day he finished on the lead lap in sixth positon. Not too bad for a guy who should have not been there.

Phoenix would be Ernie’s time behind the wheel of the race car. After he wrecked his primary car and had to start in the back of the 44 car field. Ernie swiftly made his way to the front. And by lap 75 he was sitting in the 7th spot. After the first round of pitstops, Ernie took two tires and that gave him the lead. Dale Earnhardt had taken four tires, but there was noone who could even touch Ernie for the lead. So for the next 110 laps Ernie was the leader. But unfortunately his engine went south on him on lap 197 of the 312 lap race. But that day Ernie lead the most laps.
And he proved that he was back and ready to go racing and contend for wins and hopefully championships once again.

The last race of the year Atlanta saw Ernie start 26th and finish and finishing 7th. Ernie had advanced himself to fourth by the midway point and he was second before he had to make a late pit stop. So with only three starts in 1995 Ernie had 2 top 10s and earned over $54,000.

Ernie returned to the #28 Texaco Havoline Ford in 1996. He and Dale Jarrett sat on the front row for the Daytona 500 with Dale on the pole. Ernie would go on to win his 125 Gatorade Duel Race. He would also win the pole for the spring Talladega race. His win for the season would come at New Hampshire. The second win would come at Richmond.

Ernie would finish in the top 10 in points. He would have 12 top 5 and 16 top 10 finishes. He also led 15 of the 31 events and earned a career-best $1,670,113.

But 1997 it would mean the end of Ernie at Robert Yates. Yates having decided that he wanted to try a new driver, decided that this would Ernie’s final year with the team. Ernie would win at Michigan in June. He would have 5 top 5 finishes and 13 Top 10s and 2 pole positions. And he would earn $1,614,281. Ernie would finish 14th in the points.

But Ernie was picked up by the newly formed Mb2 Motorsports to drive their #36 Skittles Pontiac. He would have 11 top 10 finishes with three poles, and he would finish 19th in the point standings. Ernie was injured at Talladega and he missed three races in 1998. He would earn $1,476,141.

In 1999 Ernie was still driving for MB2 Motorsports in the #36. This year the car would have the M&M’s logo and characters on the car. It soon became the most popular and most recognized NASCAR Cup car.

Just when things looked like Ernie was final getting use to his new team and they to him, the unthinkable happened. Ernie was at Michigan practicing for the Busch Series in his #84 Irvan-Simo Federated Auto Parts Pontiac when he crashed. Ernie was airlifted from the track and was diagnosed with a mild head injury and a bruised lung.

Ernie and his wife Kim made the decision together that Ernie would retire from racing. So on September 3, 1999, Ernie along with his wife Kim and their two children, the announcement was made that Ernie would retire effective immediately.

So at a tearful press conference held at Darlington, S.C. Ernie Irvan’s NASCAR career was officially over.

So the official standings for Ernie are as follows 15 victories, 22 poles, 68 top 5s, 124 top 10s and over 11 million dollars in career earnings.

Today Ernie spends his time trying to educate people on the dangers of brain trauma. He and his organization have come up with a special helmet for children and adults to help to protect them from brain trauma.

Ernie also spends his time working on his son's quarter midget cars. So while he is not behind the wheel any longer. He is still very much involved in racing.


  1. Hey TSfan, I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your article and am looking forward to reading more of your posts soon.

    Thanks and take care.

  2. aero glad you enjoyed it.

    tezgm99 it was nice to relive some of those memories of Ernie.

  3. Tsfan:

    Great history of Ernie's career. He was a hard charging great driver and lucky. Good to hear he is still involved in racing in a supporting role. Too bad NASCAR didn't have the safety devices in place they now have back then.Enjoyed the read.

  4. photogr with the exception of his years when he was known as "Swivering Irvan" he was a favorite for many.

    Glad that you enjoyed it.

  5. Swervin' Irvan! Nice job, TS. Ernie was very aggressive. Nothing wrong with that. He would have fit right in with Shrub now.

  6. Moseby he and the shrub would have been the best of friends. lol

  7. Holy Moly,, WOW! This is a classic for any NASCAR history buff and most of all Ernie fan,
    Great job and thanks for hosting are second race. It was too bad about the bad reck that he could never come back to what he was. A few more wins and who knows.


  8. F2 it was too bad about the wreck. But you know sometimes bad things happen so that better things can happen.