Eleven Years Later - Remembering Kenny Irwin Jr.: 1969-2000


9 Apr 1999: Kenny Irwin #28 looking on during practice for the Food City 500 of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Squire /Allsport

What follows is a story I posted June 22 of last year, ahead of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Ten years prior, on July 7, Kenny Irwin Jr. had been killed while practicing for that same event. I have an all-too-personal connection to Irwin's death that haunts me to this day, the eleventh anniversary of his passing, that I had shared bits and pieces of with fellow fans at times before. This time, though, I put it all out in the open.

Continue on to read "Irwin's Death Still Haunting Ten Years Later."

Let me preface this by saying that this story is about me and my experience with a particular situation. Its a dark recollection of one of the worst weekends of my entire life. In terms of journalism, its probably a little too self-indulgent, and if that keeps people from wanting to read it, I understand. However, I also understand that its something I have to write for myself if for anybody, and while I could wait until the week of July 7, I want to get it over with and this weekend's race location gives me that chance.

That being said...

The journey of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has reached Loudon, New Hampshire, where the Cup and Nationwide teams will race this weekend.

Most of the pre-race conversation leading up to this weekend's race will no doubt center around Loudon's place on the schedule, whether it deserves two races, how boring it is, whether we'll finally get to see the "extra mile" the track has hyped up since extending its July  race to 301 miles only to have both races under that format be rain-shortened, and so on and so forth.

In 2000, the Cup Series didn't visit the Granite State until July, but more than a date was different as the teams rolled to the "Magic Mile."

Only eight weeks had passed since Adam Petty had been killed in a crash at the very track. The still-grieving Petty Enterprises team was there with John Andretti in the #43, but they were without Kyle Petty, who didn't have traveling to the track into him. Steve Grissom was driving the #44 car in his place.

With the images of Adam's wrecked Chevrolet resting against the track's turn four wall still relatively fresh in everyone's minds, it was pretty much assured that the weekend would have a dark cloud hanging over it.

It was unfathomable that that cloud could possibly get darker, but in the opening minutes of Winston Cup practice on the morning of Friday, July 7, it did.

Being a fervent Tony Stewart fan, it was odd that I was also a fan of Kenny Irwin's. Nevermind their open-wheel rivalries in the mid-1990s which at the time I knew nothing of. Their dust-up at Martinsville in October 1999 should have been enough to sour me on Irwin for good. It did for the rest of that year, but by the time 2000 came around, I was back to being a fan of Kenny's as I had been when he'd taken over the #28 Texaco car.

The high hopes that a new team - Felix Sabates' Team Sabco - and car - the blue and bright green #42 Chevrolet - would give Kenny his opportunity to contend never materialized through the opening months of the season, but there was one moment of brilliance.

In 2000, my three least favorite drivers were, in order, Jeff Gordon, Mike Skinner, and Dale Earnhardt. Well, at Talladega in April, as the laps wound down, those were the front three drivers - in that order. Add in that Stewart and Bobby Labonte had crashed together in "The Big One" and Dale Jarrett was a lap down, put simply, this was a race I was ready to forget.

Then, in the waning laps, as the lead draft snaked its way down the backstretch, I caught a glimpse of hope: the hood of the fourth-placed car clearly read "BELLSOUTH." I hadn't even noticed, but Irwin had worked his way into contention.

"Come on, Irwin!" I shouted, waving him on, hoping someway, somehow he could dispatch the three drivers ahead of him and score his first Winston Cup victory.

Alas, the positions held. Gordon won, Skinner took second, and Earnhardt placed third. But Kenny's fourth-place finish, his best run all season, kept me from being completely disgusted with the day. In fact, I recall being rather pleased.

So pleased, in fact, that for Easter - my mom would always buy me a toy in addition to a boat load of candy - I asked for one car: the #42 Bellsouth car.

She bought me the Hot Wheels version, and while I had hoped for the Racing Champions one, I was perfectly happy just having the car. I loved that thing, racing it with my other toy cars and even trying to impress the Bellsouth technician who came to my house to install our internet - the first time we had it - by showing him my car. He gave me one of those "get away from me, kid" looks, but that didn't bother me much.

On July 6, my dad had to visit a specialist in Marietta, Georgia, and with my mom working and my parents both too afraid to leave me home alone for fear I'd deface something or burn the place down, I had to go with him. Once we arrived back in Calhoun, he stopped in Walmart, passed me a little cash, and said the magic words: "Go getcha some toys."

I didn't have to be told twice. I made my way into the store to the toy aisle that housed both the race cars and the Batman action figures - in short, the aisle custom made for me - and started browsing. I ended up with two Racing Champions cars: Wally Dallenbach's #75 Cartoon Network Ford and, yes, the #42 Bellsouth Chevy.

The joy I felt when I grabbed the coveted Racing Champions version of Kenny's car was a little bit tempered once I got home and got the car out of the package. The rainbow, which was bright and vibrant on my Hot Wheels car, was faded and almost ugly looking. Worse, the windshield was popped out at the base of the hood. These were disappointing, but I declined to have the car returned and get a new one.

I grabbed my other 1999-2000 model cars (I've always been big on my toy car races being reasonably realistic in terms of years) and lined them up, adding Kenny and Wally to the mix. Nothing made me happier as a 13-year-old kid than doing races with my toy cars, especially when I had a new car in the mix. Usually, that car was a front-runner, and sometimes won.

Well, Wally ran into some bad luck, as I recall, during the Toy Car DieHard 500 at Talladega, but Kenny not only replicated the top-5 finish he'd obtained in the real DieHard 500. He won the thing.

The next afternoon - I was on your typical "kid on summer's break" sleeping schedule - I woke up, walked in the living room, and fired up the computer. I was going to run some laps on NASCAR Racing 3, but before that, I noticed that Headline News was about to do their sports segment. I figured I'd watch to find out who had won the pole at New Hampshire, though with the way things had gone recently, I fully expected it to be Rusty Wallace. He was on the pole every other week, it seemed.

NASCAR was the top story, but it wasn't for qualifying. The narrator opened with these words that I've never forgotten and never will forget: "Tragedy has struck NASCAR again."

At first I thought it had to be a repeat of the Adam Petty story. Certainly another driver couldn't have been killed at the exact same track just two months later, could they?

I quickly realized that it was no repeat. Tragedy had indeed happened again, and this time at a Cup race. It took about two seconds for the narrator to reveal the fatality, but it felt like two minutes and in those two minutes I prayed it hadn't been Tony Stewart, my idol, even though I knew whoever it was, it would hurt.

When I heard the words "Kenny Irwin, Junior," I immediately went into shock. I think I screamed something to the effect of "No, not again!" My words had duel meaning, for not only had we lost another driver so soon after Adam's death, but once again I felt responsible.

See, in May of 1993, my family and I had gone to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at the Talladega Superspeedway and I had bought a Davey Allison car at the gift shop. Two months later, of course, he had suffered head-injuries in a helicopter crash which proved fatal.

Once the initial shock wore off, that longer lasting disbelief set in. I turned off the computer and went back to my bedroom, having zero interest in racing the simulation or watching anything on TV. When I got back to my room, I looked down at the floor. My cars were still lined up in the order they had "finished" the race the night before.

Kenny's car was sitting in first place.

Nowadays, I am not the most emotionally stable individual on the planet. It doesn't take much effort to convince me that of all the wrong in the world, a good deal of it falls on my shoulders. Imagine how I felt as a 13-year-old kid, then, with that car I had bought the day before sitting in my floor and the man who drove it lying dead somewhere in New Hampshire.

Simply put, I was in a living hell.

I watched very little of the race. I recall that Geoffrey Bodine was leading during the short bit that I watched, but I had absolutely zero interest in it and finally turned it off and returned to my bedroom. Tony Stewart won the race, his sixth-career Winston Cup victory. He's scored 31 since then, but of the 37 total wins, I without hesitation can say that, to me, as a Tony Stewart fan, the 2000 300 is absolutely the most meaningless.

Now here we are, ten years later. I don't hurt like I did that weekend, certainly not like I'm sure the Irwin family still hurts to this day, but there are still those occasional moments of disbelief that such an event still occurred in my life. I still have both of my #42 cars, as well. They rest side-by-side on my "Tribute Shelf" where I have other cars of Davey Allison, Bobby Hamilton, Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Hendrick, Blaise Alexander, Alan Kulwicki, and J.D. McDuffie. Those two cars and the #28 cars of Kenny's that I have rest at the front of the line, however.

I am not expecting any mention of Kenny during Sunday's race, but I'm holding out hope for some tribute of some sort. I certainly will have him on my mind throughout the weekend, and I hope I'm not the only one.

I do, however, hope I'm the only one with a story like mine. I wouldn't wish going through that on anyone. Its like I said. It is a heart-wrenching living hell.

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