DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Former Winston Cup driver Ernie Irvan wasn't exactly sure why he was coming to Daytona International Speedway. But, his public relations people told him he had to come for an interview.
"So," he said. "I said, 'OK, I'm not very popular anymore. I need press.' "
Irvan didn't know how popular he is.
The reason he had to come to Daytona was to be surprised with a gift from the racing community.
Four months after losing everything when his house burned to the ground last March, the 15 tracks at which Irvan had won Winston Cup races got together and presented him with replicas of his winning trophies and victory lane photographs.
"It's unbelievable," Irvan said, as he stood surrounded by the hardware. "When Kim [his wife] and I got off the plane from the Bahamas and heard our house was on fire, the only thing in the whole house that I thought about was my trophy room."
He hadn't really cared about trophies when he started Winston Cup racing. But his car owners, Larry McClure and Robert Yates, had insisted he have them, and after he was forced to retire due to head injuries last year, he discovered how important they were to him.
"I'm never going to win any more of them," said Irvan, 41. "I'm so grateful for this. That trophy room, it represented everything I'd ever done in my life. When I left California to come east, I didn't even know if I could make a living. No one predicted I'd ever have a house like the one that. No one predicted that I'd win one Winston Cup race, let alone 15. And then, to have it all taken away - for me to be thought about like this, for these people to take the time and expense to reproduce all this, I don't know what to say, it means so much."
Larry McReynolds, Irvan's former crew chief, said Irvan and his wife were at his house on a recent evening and spent much of it talking about how many things can be replaced but his uniforms and his trophies couldn't be.
Said Kenny Schrader: "And when he was talking to me in the garage the other day, he was telling me trophies are like jewelry and that I should contact my insurance company upgrade so that if anything happened, I could have the trophies replaced. I told him, it wasn't as near as big a problem for me."
Irvan nearly lost his life in a racing accident at Michigan Speedway in 1994 and then, after making a comeback and winning three more times, he was forced into retirement last year after another crash at the same track.
In between, he won a race at Michigan and said yesterday, "The smart thing would have been to have retired in victory lane that day."
But he didn't, and so he continues to work at regaining his full memory.
Yesterday, as he looked at all of his trophies and the photos of his victory celebrations, he got choked up.
"These trophies will bring back a lot of memories," he said. "My kids - my daughter is 6, and my son is 2 - and 10 years from now I'll be able to point to these and share the stories that go with them."
And then Irvan paused and as his old car owner Robert Yates wrapped his thick arm around his shoulders, Ernie Irvan smiled.
"Racing," he said. "It's nothing if you can't sit back, remember and talk about it years later."
NOTES: The state of Maryland was well represented last night in the revival Paul Revere 250 sports car race here sanctioned by The Grand American Road Racing Series.
Chuck Goldsborough and Mark Bunting started eighth in their Pilbeam MPIR-Nissan in the SRII class. Doug Mills of Hagerstown was teamed with Andy McNeil of High Point, N.C., in the AGT class in a Chevrolet Camaro that Mills rebuilt in his garage last year. And Wayne Jackson of Columbia accepted an invitation from Gunnar Racing to team with father-son combo Joseph Policastro Sr. and Jr. in a Porsche 993RSR in the GTU class.
"We're hoping to win," said Bunting and got no argument from Goldsborough or car owner/designer Michael Pilbeam.
"We had brake problems and gearing problems during practice and still managed to be fast enough to start eighth," Goldsborough said. "Now that we've got the problems fixed and had some seat time, we believe we're going to be better."
Mills and McNeil said they believe with no on-track problems, they should be battling for the lead in their class at the finish, while Jackson said his team, which started 20th, hoped to come home in the middle of the pack.
"The car we have here was state of the art three years ago," Jackson said. "We have a new car ordered, but in this race we're at a disadvantage. If we hold our middle of the pack position we'll be pleased."