Two devastating crashes at Michigan International Speedway forced him to retire.
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Ernie Irvan's life, for better and worse, has taken several twists at Michigan International Speedway.
His last NASCAR win came at Michigan in 1997. The victory sandwiched two devastating crashes on the two-mile oval that eventually forced him to retire in 1999.
So it's no coincidence Irvan chose the Michigan track as the promotional launching pad for his new focus, a nationwide effort to raise awareness about brain injury prevention.
"My whole life turned all kinds of different ways here," Irvan said while visiting the speedway recently. "My history at Michigan, my life being saved at Michigan ... it's my next step in life, my next thing to do. We feel we can make a difference."
Irvan, 46, started the Race2Safety Foundation last year. One of the group's first major fundraisers will be Aug. 17 at the Michigan track -- which hosts this Sunday's Nextel Cup race.
Irvan hopes to have up to 10,000 people pay at least $100 per person to walk around the speedway with him and active NASCAR drivers. Similar events will be added at other NASCAR sites next year.
Swervin' Ernie Irvan, a Californian with a home in North Carolina, was one of the Winston Cup circuit's most popular drivers in the early 1990s. He won 12 races from 1990 through 1994, highlighted by the 1991 Daytona 500.
But his career changed forever on Aug. 20, 1994, during a practice run at Michigan.
Irvan slammed into the wall on a turn and was knocked unconscious with a traumatic brain injury, skull fracture and chest injuries. One of the first people to reach the car was speedway doctor John Maino, whom Irvan credits with saving his life.
"It was only a matter of time before I was going to drown in my own blood," Irvan said, with Maino seated at his side in a Michigan speedway suite.
Realizing that Irvan wasn't getting oxygen, Maino slit the driver's throat and inserted a tube to get him some air. Irvan was on a helicopter and headed to a hospital just 23 minutes after hitting the wall, a quick response that aided his eventual recovery.
Doctors initially gave him only a 10 percent chance of survival. But Irvan defied the odds and returned to racing in 1995. He won two races in 1996 and was first at Michigan in 1997, saying he had conquered the speedway that nearly conquered him.
Final crash in 1999
But Irvan hit the wall again at Michigan in 1999 -- exactly five years to the day after his first traumatic accident -- and had another head injury. He retired soon afterward.
His wife, Kim, said he was like a cat with nine lives -- and had used up eight of them.
Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, is thrilled by Irvan's choice of a new career.
"Ernie is willing to step forward and be a leader in this movement, and that is a tremendous benefit," Dabbs said. "We have got to raise awareness about this issue."
An estimated 5.3 million Americans -- about 2 percent of the population -- live with a permanent disability resulting from a traumatic brain injury, Dabbs said.
Irvan's foundation seeks to reduce head injuries of the sort that cut short his racing career. A main focus is on children, whom Irvan says should wear helmets while riding bicycles or playing certain sports. The foundation raises money to buy helmets for needy children.
"I'm a very, very fortunate person to be able to sit here and talk about this," Irvan said. "I can run. I can drive my kids to school. My time in this life isn't done yet, and I want to make a difference."