Does Anybody Remember Kenny Irwin Jr.?

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJune 30, 2008

I apologize for the raw emotion present in this article, as it impedes some of my writing skills, but I feel like these statements have to be made.

Every time I go up to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for either of the Sprint Cup race weekends, I am reminded of the track’s grim history by a black No. 45 Dodge fielded by Petty Enterprises. That was Adam Petty’s car.

Petty died in May 2000, when the Nationwide Series was still called the Busch Series, Dale Earnhardt was still alive, and America was still 16 months away from its greatest national tragedy since Pearl Harbor.

His car crashed head on into the turn three wall, robbing the sport of one of its brightest upcoming stars and robbing Petty Enterprises of its best driver since the King himself.

But a lot of people forget that two people died at the Speedway that year.

During the track’s first Winston Cup weekend that July, Kenny Irwin crashed in the exact same spot, also hitting the wall head on. His No. 42 BellSouth Chevrolet, fielded by Team Sabco, flipped onto its side and slid that way for a long time before finally coming to rest on its roof.

Irwin was a casualty of a bad nine months or so for NASCAR. Between May 12, 2000 and February 18, 2001, the sport lost a Craftsman Truck Series driver (Tony Roper), a Busch Series driver (Petty), and two Winston Cup drivers (Irwin and Dale Earnhardt).

After Earnhardt’s death in February 2001, NASCAR made numerous safety improvements, such as the mandatory head-and-neck restraint and SAFER barriers, that can still be seen in the sport today.

Tributes to Earnhardt run rampant in the grandstands—many people have tattoos of Earnhardt’s stylized “3” with a pair of wings on either side. Meanwhile, the Victory Junction Gang Camp, a retreat for seriously ill children opened by Kyle and Pattie Petty in honor of their son, is one of NASCAR’s most well-known charities, and many drivers visit the children at camp every year.

Yet it seems like nobody remembers Irwin. Memories of the driver once projected to be the next Jeff Gordon have been all but erased. I saw no fan tributes to the fallen driver up at Loudon this weekend, leading me to wonder if many even remember Irwin anymore.

For the record, Irwin made his Winston Cup debut in 1997, winning the outside pole for his first race at Richmond for David Blair. In 1998 and 1999, he drove the famous No. 28 Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing, finishing 19th in points in 1999 and scoring a total of three poles with the team.

His best career finish was third in the 1999 Daytona 500, behind Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt. Most notably, he won the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in 1998.

Was Kenny Irwin, Jr. an all-time NASCAR great? Certainly not.

But he does not deserve to fade from NASCAR’s memory, as if nobody ever cared.

Look at the Chip Ganassi Racing stable and you won’t see a shred of its brief history with Irwin. Almost everything reminiscent of its days as Team Sabco is gone, from sponsors like Coors Light and BellSouth to drivers like Sterling Marlin, Joe Nemechek, and Irwin.

When Irwin died in 2000, the team regrouped under a different car number, the 01, with a new paint scheme. Richard Childress Racing did the same when Earnhardt died. The 01 became the 41 a couple years after, with Jimmy Spencer behind the wheel.

However, when Jamie McMurray joined Ganassi Racing full-time in 2003, the team brought back the No. 42 without a mention of Irwin—and with his old sponsor, Havoline, to boot.

Nobody ever carried a 42 decal for the balance of the season, like drivers did with the numbers 7 and 28 in 1993 after Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison died. Drivers carried only “In Memory of Kenny Irwin” stickers in commemoration of his death.

Nobody in NASCAR runs annual benefits for the Dare to Dream Camp, which Irwin’s parents run in his honor. Compare that with the continued attention Victory Junction gets.

Nobody ever stood up and saluted Irwin on lap 42 for the balance of the season.

The No. 42 car is only black because Havoline cars have been mostly black since the early 1990s.

I could go on and on about the tributes that Kenny Irwin Jr. never received that other drivers did. (To be fair, I could go on and on about Roper, too—and I should—but I’ll save that for the race at which he died.)

However, the more and more I rant about how I feel that Irwin got the shaft compared to other drivers, the harder and harder it is for me to make the point I want to articulate—hat NASCAR fans need to remember Kenny Irwin, Jr. as a fallen hero.

Truth is, there was a point, sometime in late 1997, when the Indianapolis native couldn’t be avoided. David Blair, owner of Irwin’s first Winston Cup car, said that Irwin would be the next Jeff Gordon.

The kid was fast, too, never qualifying worse than 11th (save one DNQ) in his first look-see in Blair’s No. 27 Fords. The attention Irwin received in 1998 as the next great Yates driver was immense.

In 2007, Irwin was an afterthought in the NEXTEL Cup garage.

See the Jayski.com page for Earnhardt tributes—it’s growing all the time as new marketing programs featuring the Man in Black are drawn up. While Petty’s mostly features old news, the annual black car and Victory Junction’s presence in the sport are well-known by those at all levels of the sport.

All I ask is that NASCAR fans start remembering Irwin.

Consider donating to the Dare to Dream Camp, which supports abused, underprivileged, and neglected children between the ages of 5 and 17. Based in New Castle, Indiana, the camp runs eight one-week sessions every summer that accommodate 60 to 100 children each, and numerous events throughout the year. (The address appears at the end of this article.)

It’d be nice if some people would start writing to Yates Racing and Ganassi asking them to display prominent tributes to Irwin at New Hampshire when the Sprint Cup cars return in September for the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Finally, every time you numerous Earnhardt fans out there purchase more tribute gear in honor of your favorite driver, remember that Dale Earnhardt was not the first driver to die while competing at NASCAR’s top level.

Remember that others came first. Remember that one of those drivers was a curly-haired, affable USAC star from Indianapolis, Indiana named Kenneth Dale Irwin, Jr., and that he was destined to compete with your beloved driver until his throttle stuck one fateful day in July 2000.

To be honest, I don’t care how you remember Irwin. Just start remembering him.

Nobody deserves to be forgotten.

Checks payable to the Dare to Dream camp can be mailed to this address:

The Dare to Dream Camp

75 W. County Road 500S

New Castle, IN 47362

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