Motor City Memories: Ernie Irvan Conquers Michigan

Dustin ParksAnalyst IAugust 15, 2009

1 Jun 1997:  Ernie Irvan performs during the Miller 500 at the Dover Downs International Speedway in Dover, Delaware. Mandatory Credit: Craig Jones  /Allsport

Whenever NASCAR makes its two trips to Michigan, one very vivid memory comes to my mind.  It wasn't Dale Earnhardt Jr. ending his winless streak, or Carl Edwards forcing his semi driver to finally shave his beard.

The memory I constantly am reminded of happened back in 1997.

When Robert Yates Racing had to face the untimely death of Davey Allison, a tough decision had to be made. They wanted to keep their No. 28 Texaco-Havoline car on the track, but needed a driver.

After much discussion, the team decided to hire Ernie Irvan to drive their car. In only a few weeks, Yates knew he made the right choice as Irvan put the No. 28 back in victory lane.

The following year Irvan was keeping the car competitive, nearly winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

Then came the second trip to Michigan International Speedway. During one of the first practice sessions, Irvan was on the track making his laps, seeing how the car was handling.

Suddenly, in the second turn, the car hits the wall. Calls from the crew went unanswered, and everyone started to fear for the worst. Irvan had to be cut out of the car, and life-flighted to the hospital.

The people in the garage, officials and fans prepared themselves for the worst, wondering if Irvan would pull through.

Irvan did survive his life-threatening ordeal, returning a few weeks later to take questions from the media. Irvan still had the desire to drive, but he was not ready to get back in the car.

Late the following year, Irvan felt that he was ready to get back in the car. Irvan made his return at North Wilkesboro, qualifying seventh and finishing sixth.

In 1996, Irvan got back in his No. 28 that new teammate Dale Jarrett ran the prior year. Irvan made it back to victory lane twice that year, in New Hampshire and Richmond.

Still, there seemed to be something missing, something that needed to be done so that Irvan could feel complete. He needed to win at the track that nearly took his life. Irvan needed to win at Michigan.

Then came June 15, 1997, which was the day the Miller 400 was held at the Michigan International Speedway. It was a sunny afternoon, where 43 cars came to do battle just outside the Motor City of Detroit.

Late in the race, it came down to a battle between Irvan and Bill Elliott. Elliott needed to make minor repairs to his car after some contact on pit road, which gave Irvan the lead.

As the laps began winding down, Irvan began having thoughts of what happened to him three years earlier. The crash, the plane ride and wondering if he would live came back with every passing of the second corner.

But, while he was thinking about these things, he began opening up his lead. There was no one close to challenge him. Irvan was in control of his own destiny, and had to keep both his car and his emotions in check.

By doing just that, Irvan erased all those thoughts and took the checkered flag. At that moment, people were not talking about how close Irvan came to losing his life in a race car. Instead, they were talking about him standing in victory lane for the first, and what would ultimately be the only, time that year.

Two years later, Irvan again had a serious accident at the Michigan race track, which led him to retire from driving.

Still, even though it was just one afternoon, Irvan had conquered the track that nearly took everything that mattered to him away.

On that day, it wasn't about winning in the back yard of the American auto makers. It wasn't about points, and it wasn't about the sponsors.

That day, it was about a man conquering his fear.