February 1991 is remembered in American history for Operation Desert Storm as part of the first Gulf War. The security attention paid to Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, Fla., and around the country was increased. Three weeks following the NFL championship game, the largest sporting crowd since the military operation began gathered on Florida’s East Coast a few hours from where the Giants won their second title. Over 100,000 fans filled the grounds of Daytona International Speedway for the 500.
Ernie Irvan won on a day that started with patriotic displays and 200 mph battles, and ended with a fuel-saving maneuver at 55 mph.
“Our testing went really well. The motor department with ‘Runt’ Pittman talked like they were really in good shape. Everything we were doing was on the positive side,” said Irvan.
“I thought I had a shot. But I didn’t really think about it. Obviously getting up that morning I thought I could win that race,” Irvan said. “Sometimes you say, ‘If it happens I’ll be ready for it.’ I don’t want to get disappointed so I just want to keep level. Try to stay focused and get out there and make the right moves.”
He had a strong week in his Morgan McClure Motorsports entry. Irvan qualified for the 500 second and finished runner-up to Dale Earnhardt in their qualifying race. Near the front most of the day, Irvan led late in the 500.
Irvan had extended his late lead over Earnhardt and Davey Allison. The pair were side-by-side with Joe Ruttman, Kyle Petty and Sterling Marlin following. With two-and-a half laps remaining Earnhardt spun and swept Allison and Petty up in the crash. Irvan continued on and won under caution. But it was hardly a relaxing or easy final lap. Fearing running out of fuel, he rode on the flat apron to avoid the turns’ banking.
Irvan said, “We were that close. We had enough fuel to make it at normal race speed and laps. But the problem was when you are not going fast, then the fuel is not sloshing to the right side where the fuel pickup is. We felt like we were going to be in good shape trying to make sure the thing keeps the fuel picked up but you never know.”
The Daytona 500 victory “was unbelievable; it was something you never even imagine. Obviously my ultimate dream was winning it. But when it happened I was shocked because of how it ended. Under caution and almost running out of fuel.”
“It basically changed a lot of things in my life obviously,” said Irvan. “I got invited to the White House for a state dinner. Being able to go and meet the president. To be invited there instead of going to visit… I was an honored guest. I still have the invitation in a frame and am able to have a picture with the president knowing you were invited there. It meant a lot. Also being able to be known as the 1991 Daytona 500 winner. It was just a day you cannot even imagine.”
Irvan now lives in Charleston, S.C., and helps his son race quarter midgets in North Carolina.
His daughter competes in horse jumping shows and Irvan knows his role. “I’m like the glue. I’m the truck driver. I don’t do anything with the horses. Just basically haul them around and help them anytime I can,” said Irvan.
Now the former racer’s time is spent “just trying to raise the kids and hopefully they will turn out like we expect. They probably will.”
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com)
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