A Strong Foundation
Family Honors Kenny Irwin, Jr. By Helping Others
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published Sept. 1, 2010.
“He was one of the best I ever ran against,” stated Tony Stewart emphatically about his friend, competitor and sometimes antagonist Kenny Irwin, Jr. prior to this year’s Brickyard 400. “If Kenny would’ve lived he would’ve at least won a championship, if not several. Unfortunately we lost him a few years back.”
Kenny Irwin, Jr. died just more than 10 years ago — July 7, 2000, during NASCAR Cup practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Stewart won the New England 300 that weekend and dedicated his victory to his fallen buddy.
If Irwin’s performance in every racing discipline he applied his exceptional talent to is any indicator, Stewart’s assessment of Irwin’s should-have-been accomplishments are spot on.
Irwin was the USAC National Sprint Car Series Rookie of the Year in 1993. The following year he took rookie honors in the Silver Crown division and in 1995 became the USAC National Midget Series champion.
Irwin entered NASCAR competition through the Craftsman Truck Series, winning two races and rookie of the year in 1997. In 1998, he was named to drive Robert Yates’s famed No. 28, replacing Ernie Irvan. He performed well enough to claim rookie of the year honors in the Cup division.
He spent another season with Yates before switching to the No. 42 of Team Sabco, now the No. 42 car of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
In his short NASCAR Cup career Irwin won three poles and managed 12 top-10 finishes. But, all too soon, he was gone, revealing only a glimpse of his full potential.
It’s tragic. But, more important than what he could have been, or what he accomplished on the track, are those things Kenny Irwin, Jr. did off the track, acts of charity that came to light only after his death and will resonate with people long after the memory of his on-track accomplishments wanes.
Of the thousands who were at Irwin’s funeral and visitation, many told his parents, Kenny, Sr. and Reva, stories of surprise hospital visits, hospital bills paid and money given for those in financial need.
They learned from a representative of the Boy Scouts that when he had called Irwin, Sr.’s place of business, Kenny happened to be there and took the call.
When the gentleman finished his pitch about the benefits of camping for kids and queried about a donation to help finance a camper, Kenny volunteered to send a dozen kids.
“We knew nothing about any of this,” insists his father, “until after Kenny’s accident. We began to hear these stories at his funeral and then through cards, letters, phone calls and e-mails in the weeks afterward.
“Kenny always felt very privileged to have the resources and the popularity he did,” explains Irwin, Sr. “He thought it was more than he deserved and he was quietly trying to use that for others.
“You always try to teach your kids about life. What’s amazing is when they teach you about life. Kenny was teaching me.
“That made me begin to think,” muses Irwin, Sr. “And I realized I really hadn’t done anything worthwhile with my life. So, to help make something good come out of this tragedy, and to continue the work that Kenny was doing, in 2000 I created the Kenny Irwin, Jr. Foundation.”
The foundation wasn’t but a year old when Kenny’s parents felt it should specifically help underprivileged kids participate in an activity that was dear to their son’s heart, camping.
They built the Dare to Dream camp on 30 acres near New Castle, Ind. Its mission is to teach at-risk, abused and neglected kids that, in the words of Irwin, Sr., “…nothing is impossible if you can dream it first.”
“A lot of these kids have never known what it is to have a dream that they thought could become real. Kenny had his and got it. We want others to have that same opportunity.”
The camp holds eight, one-week sessions throughout the summer, with each session hosting 60-100 kids. This is an expensive undertaking, costing in excess of $250,000 a year.
Funding for this endeavor has come through corporate and private donations, and fund-raising events. Most recently, for example, the 1934 Ford Coupe that Kenny started building before his death, and his father later finished, was sold at the Indianapolis Mecum Auction for $50,000.
As the time since Kenny’s death continues to steal quickly by, it’s becoming more difficult to raise the necessary funds.
“It’s been 10 years since Kenny’s death,” relates Irwin, Sr., “and sad as it is to say, people forget. There’s a new generation of fans who never saw Kenny race. It’s natural that after awhile people begin to lose interest.”
Compounding the financial issues is the fact that Kenny’s mother has been very ill.
“Reva is the one who does all the planning for and the coordinating of the camp activities,” relates Irwin, Sr. “She just hasn’t been able to do that so far this year. What happens this year, the next, will determine whether we’ll be able to keep the camp running or not.”
Although the camp might be in jeopardy, the foundation is not. If the Irwins can’t keep the camp operating, it will be sold, with the money going back into the foundation.
The passing of time and the dimming of memories might alter the foundation’s focus, but its mission will not be compromised. As it has for 10 years, the foundation will continue to help those Kenny had such a passion for — the underprivileged.
It can also carry on Kenny’s love of involving kids in camping, by sponsoring them at other camps, like the Petty’s Victory Junction Gang or one that Tony Stewart is rumored to be building in southern Indiana.
The Kenny Irwin, Jr. Foundation was created not only to memorialize what he accomplished on the race track, but, more importantly, to celebrate the man he was off the track.
For information, visit www.kennyirwinjrfoundation.org.