In July of 2000 the racing world lost one of its rising stars, and I lost a friend. On July 7th in 2000, Kenny Irwin Jr. raced his last lap in practice at the New Hampshire track. Kenny's loss was just one in a series of tragic accidents that affected the NASCAR family and has had the tendency to get lost in the shuffle as time has passed by.
I had the good fortune of getting to know Kenny through my association with Hasbro and the Winner's Circle brand. Kenny had driven cars sponsored by Winner's Circle in 1997 and many of the people I worked with there had the good fortune to work closely with him that season. It was in October of 1998, after joining the Winner's Circle team, that I got the chance to meet Kenny Irwin at an event at the headquarters of Action-Performance in Charlotte. This was the weekend that Kenny and Dale Jarrett were participating in the Batman and Joker promotion.
I had long been a fan of the famous RYR Texaco Havoline #28 and was a fan of Kenny's as soon as it was announced that he would drive the car in 1998. Prior to my association with Hasbro, I was your typical NASCAR fan who loved his driver, wore his gear each Sunday and had his number on the back window of my car. I was extremely excited to know that I was going to attend this special event in Charlotte, knowing many drivers would be there. As the night went on, I had the chance to meet Kenny and a group of his close associates. When I introduced myself to him, I whipped out my Kenny Irwin Fan Club card and he was quite surprised to see it. I had a few minutes to talk with him and he invited me to look for him the next day at the track.
Over the rest of the 1998 season, I would see Kenny at the track when I was there and he always had a smile and a kind word. He would signal me from the car when he was heading out to practice and would always invite me to come into his pit stall to watch the race. He always had a smile and took some time to chat each time we were around.
When I rolled into Daytona for the first part of Speedweeks in 1999, I was the proud owner of a NASCAR hard card. Kenny was quite impressed at the site of my new found stature. Over the course of the 1999 season, Kenny would again be the friendly face I would look for each time I was at the track. At Martinsville in late 1999, Kenny broke the news to me that he would be moving over to drive the #42 for the 2000 season. He even asked if I would take a shot at designing some paint schemes for him. Later that season in Charlotte, Kenny had us stop by his motor coach to look over some ideas and watch the Busch race. That was a really great moment.
Over the years, I was privileged to have designed t-shirts and logos for Kenny's Fan Club. In 2000, he had me do his t-shirt design featuring the #42 car he would be driving for that season. When we arrived at Daytona in 2000, I could see a new spirit in his eyes, looking forward to a new start for the 2000 season. He seemed full of optimism and ready to get the season going. I would see him a few times as the season wore on as I traveled to the track. At Richmond that summer, I got a chance to spend some time with him on pit road and talked about how his season was going and about how well he had done at that track in the past. Little did I know that it would be the last time I would ever get the chance to talk with him.
I was in Daytona for the July race but I was never able to catch up with him that weekend. My schedule was full of events and though I was able to give a wave hello as I passed him in a car, I never got the chance to talk with him. I figured that I would just catch up with him at the next event I traveled to. I listened in on Kenny during the race that night, and then made my way back home like I had so many times before.
I was working a summer hours half day on Friday, July 7, 2000. I had just gotten home from Hasbro at lunchtime when I got a call from a family member telling me to turn on the news. I can't even describe the feelings I had when I heard the news that Kenny had been lost in a practice accident. I had never felt such a profound feeling of unexpected loss.
Kenny Irwin Jr. was a driver who had so much talent and opportunity in front of him. We never knew the heights that he may have achieved in his career. On July 7, 2000, the sport of NASCAR not only lost a great future talent, but a warm, kind person as well. Each and every July 7th, I continue to pray for his family and send them my words of encouragement. I will never forget Kenny Irwin Jr. and the simple acts of friendship he showed to me. I want to make sure that the name Kenny Irwin Jr. is never forgotten and will always do everything I can to keep his memory alive in the minds of NASCAR fans.