Irvan worked during the day, prepared his car at night, ran the local dirt tracks on Saturday nights and spent Sundays in a mobile home watching Winston Cup races on a borrowed black-and-white TV. Earnhardt, well into the big time by then, had a habit of cruising the humbler racing shops, encouraging drivers who hadn't made it yet. With a $3,000 stake from Earnhardt and a car assembled from borrowed parts. Irvan finished eighth at Charlotte in the fall 500-miler of 1987. From there he worked his way upward through the smaller NASCAR teams. He eventually caught on with a strong one, Morgan-McClure, and in 1990 he finally won a major race, in Bristol, Tenn.
In the Daytona 500 of 1991, Irvan flashed past Earnhardt and Allison in the late laps and breezed to victory after the two stars wrecked each other while scrambling to catch him. But that spring Irvan lost the respect of his peers, who were furious at his wild driving. He recalls, "I knew it was going to come crashing down on me sooner or later. You've got to be accepted in this sport. If you're not, you're going to get shuffled out."
That summer at Talladega, Irvan did something unheard-of in NASCAR. He stood up before a drivers' meeting, apologized and promised to do better. He was wrecked in the race that day—possibly a final payback—but after that he became an advocate of sane driving.
In midseason of 1993, Allison's death in a helicopter crash left the Yates team without a driver. Tragedy gave Irvan his dream ride. To a grieving team Irvan's cool, cheerful demeanor was "super-good medicine," says crew chief Larry McReynolds. By this past summer Irvan was earning well over $1 million a year. He had won five races for Yates (bringing his career total to 12) and was only 27 points behind Earnhardt in the '94 championship standings—so close that the Michigan race could have given Irvan the lead.
And then wham!
Kim and Jordan were at the track, in the Irvans' luxury motor home. "What upset me most," Kim recalls of the minutes after the crash, "was that nobody would tell me whether Ernie was alive or not."
That was because, Yates recalls, "I had been told by one of the emergency workers that Ernie didn't make it." At the hospital Kim and Yates learned that Ernie was alive. "Then," says Kim, "the doctors came out and told me he had a 10 percent chance to live. That floored me." For the next five days she slept a total of nine hours, in a chair with her head resting on Ernie's bed. "I was begging, pleading with God," she says. "I was desperate."
A 1989 graduate of UNC Charlotte, with a degree in psychology, Kim had known little and cared less about racing until she met Ernie in 1991. "She'd always thought racers were a bunch of rednecks," Ernie says. "Then she learned that they really are."
In November 1992 they were married. The very next season Kim received a horrific baptism into Ernie's world. "On my birthday, April 1, Alan Kulwicki got killed," she says. The 1992 Winston Cup champion died when his private plane crashed at an airport outside Bristol only minutes after the Irvans' plane had landed there. Then, in July, Allison's helicopter crashed. Kim became terrified of the light-aircraft travel so necessary to NASCAR stars. But the fatalities, having occurred off the track, did not increase her usual worries about Ernie.
Then last February, Bonnett and Orr were killed in separate crashes at Daytona. Still, Kim says, "you come up with all kinds of reasons: Maybe he shouldn't have been racing [Bonnett had returned to driving after a serious head injury], or maybe his equipment didn't hold up.