Ernie Irvan is very passionate about brain trauma. This comes as no big surprise, since he's a survivor himself. Twice.
Ernie began his racing career driving karts in 1968 at the tender age of nine. He moved up to stock cars in 1975 at 16, and missed his high school graduation ceremony in favor of competing in a race. Gotta love a guy who has his priorities straight!
In 1982, Ernie decided he was ready for the big time, and moved to Charlotte, N.C. with little more than the clothes on his back. He supported himself by doing odd jobs around Charlotte Motor Speedway and racing in the Late Model Series at Concord. He made his Cup debut in 1987 at Richmond in a car sponsored by Dale Earnhardt, and narrowly missed taking Rookie of the Year honors the following year.
In August 1994, Irvan lost his right front tire in a practice session at Michigan, and his car crashed into the Turn 2 wall at over 170 mph. He suffered lung and head injuries and was given a 10% chance of surviving the night. Doctors assured him he would never have a normal life, never race again. But he walked onto the stage under his own power at the NASCAR Awards banquet that fall to accept the True Value Hard Charger Award.
He was cleared to race again the following fall, capturing three more checkered flags before he crashed into the same wall at Michigan in August 1999, once again sustaining head and lung injuries. Less than two weeks later, he formally announced his retirement.
These days Ernie has become a huge safety advocate, speaking in various locations about the prevention of brain injury. "I'm just trying to get the message out about prevention," Irvan says. "The numbers keep going up. Every 23 seconds in the U.S., someone suffers another traumatic brain injury." Of course, many of those someones are children, riding bicycles and skateboards without helmets. Though Irvan rode his own bike as a child helmetless, he does not approve of the practice. His foundation, Race2Safety, has already provided over 3000 helmets to children across the Southeast. He also speaks to our nation's troops about life after brain injury, and how to survive the recovery process.
If you'd like to help, be sure to join Ernie and a few hundred of his closest friends who are survivors of traumatic brain injury in the fan walks at Michigan Speedway. Michigan has "bent over backwards" to help make sure the walks happen as close as possible to race day, according to Irvan. And well they should.
And if you'd like to learn more about Ernie, it turns out he can write, too. Check out his book, "No Fear: Ernie Irvan: The NASCAR Driver's Story of Tragedy and Triumph," available at a book store near you.
In the meantime, be sure to wear your helmet when you ride. Do it for Ernie!
- Ernie Irvan