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Entering the 1994 NASCAR season, Ernie Irvan and his team had high expectations. He had finished in the top six of the NASCAR final points standings in two of the previous three seasons. 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 to die 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 NASCAR career

After making his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 1987, Ernie Irvan steadily advanced 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, finishing 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 about whether Ernie Irvan was going to die

Ernie Irvan saved by pocket-knife tracheotomy after horrifying crash

It was a morning practice run on August 20, 1994, at the Michigan International Speedway. Ernie Irvan’s vehicle flew around the track at about 170 miles an hour when his car cut the right-front tire. 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 performed 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 accident scene on the track, not the infield hospital, airlifted him to a nearby hospital. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury, chest injuries, and the same basilar skull fracture that killed Dale Earnhardt years later. Doctors gave Ernie Irvan a 10% 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. 

Irvan’s recovery, comeback, another bad crash at Michigan, and retirement 


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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 some top-10 finishes.

Irvan returned to a full schedule in 1996, winning twice that season and then winning 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.