Coming into the 1994 NASCAR season, Ernie Irvan and his team had high expectations. In two of the previous three seasons, Irvan had finished in the top six of the NASCAR final points standings. Through 20 races that season, Irvan had won three times and was battling Dale Earnhardt for the Cup Series championship.
Then, during a practice run at Michigan in August, disaster struck. Irvan was involved in a horrific accident where his car violently slammed into the wall. He was destined for dying on the track that day but was saved by the actions of one man. Here’s a look back on the near-fatal accident and how Irvan overcame the odds and returned to the track, only to see his career come to an abrupt end exactly five years later in another bad accident at the same track.
Ernie Irvan’s career
After making his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 1987, Ernie Irvan steadily moved his way up each year in the season-ending points standings. In 1990, Irvan finished ninth, followed by a fifth-place finish the following year. After a disappointing 11th place to end 1992, he rebounded the following season with a solid sixth-place finish, including a pair of victories in the final six races with Yates Racing.
The 1994 season was going to be the year. And it certainly appeared that way early on. Irvan got off to a promising start in the season opener at Daytona, where he finished second behind Sterling Marlin. Ten races into the 1994 schedule and Irvan had won three times at Richmond, Atlanta, and Sonoma, equal to the best total season of his career.
While Irvan was at the top of his game, he had company. Dale Earnhardt and Irvan jockeyed for position, alternating the top spot for the first 20 races of the year. However, it was the 21st race that season where the standings became irrelevant. No one was worried about points. The whole NASCAR family was concerned whether or not Ernie Irvan was going to die.
Ernie Irvan saved by pocketknife tracheotomy after horrifying crash
It was a morning practice run on August 20 at the Michigan International Speedway. Ernie Irvan’s vehicle flew around the track around 170 miles an hour when his car cut the right-front tire, and the vehicle made a sharp right turn and violently slammed into the wall. Irvan was unconscious and trapped inside.
When doctors arrived, things looked grim. Irvan was profusely bleeding from his mouth and nose. His brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Realizing Irvan could drown in his own blood, Dr. John Maino opted to perform an emergency tracheotomy. Unfortunately, the kit was missing the blade so he used a pocketknife to cut the driver’s throat, before inserting a tube connected to a bag that would force air into Irvan’s body.
The helicopter, which the doctor had called to the scene of the accident on the track and not the infield hospital, airlifted him to a nearby hospital. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury, the same basilar skull fracture that killed Dale Earnhardt years later, and chest injuries. Doctors gave Ernie Irvan a 10 percent chance to live.
“I was initially pessimistic because of his neurological status and because I’ve seen other people come into the emergency department with similar type of injuries that the prognosis wasn’t good,’ said Maino, who was the medical director of the emergency department at Foote Hospital in Jackson, Mich., and the county’s medical examiner.
Recovery, comeback, another bad crash at Michigan, and retirement
Ernie Irvan remained unconscious for two days. Amazingly, he survived and then pushed through an arduous rehabilitation process. He returned to the track in October 1995 and recorded a couple of top 10 finishes.
Irvan returned to a full schedule in 1996, where he won twice that season, and then won once in 1997, at the same Michigan track where he almost died. Unbelievably, five years to the day of his accident, Irvan suffered another severe crash at Michigan during a practice run for the NASCAR Busch Grand Nationals. Once again, he was unconscious.
Fortunately, his injuries weren’t life-threatening as he suffered a concussion and bruised lungs. He was treated by Dr. Maino, this time in the infield hospital.
It was the last time Ernie Irvan received treatment for a race injury. It was the last time he ever raced. Irvan started the Race2Safety Foundation and ran it for a few years to promote head injury awareness.