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Tuesday, July 15
Updated: July 17, 6:42 PM ET
Irwins hoping to give back
By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com
Many families eagerly anticipate the month of July, with warm weather, vacations and fun usually in the cards.
But there's one family in central Indiana that would just as soon see July come and go as quick as possible because of the hardship and heartache with which it is associated.
Even though it was three years ago last Monday, July 7, that Kenny Irwin Jr. was tragically killed while practicing for a race at New Hampshire International Speedway, his father, mother and three sisters still grieve as if the terrible wreck occurred just yesterday.
"It doesn't get any easier with time," family patriarch Kenny Irwin Sr. said, his voice breaking with emotion. "We still grieve today. I think anybody that's ever lost a daughter or a son, that's just something you never get over. It's not a normal way of life. Normally, as a parent, you watch your kids grow up, get married and have their own kids. There's no one to carry his name on.
"It's hard for me to talk about it. I told one of my daughters on the fourth of July that it doesn't get better for me, it definitely gets worse. The worse it gets, the harder I work to try to not to think about it. We don't ever talk about Kenny and the accident. It's like we have to work within our own selves through a very serious problem that's happened in our life."
Irwin's only son, perhaps on the precipice of becoming a Winston Cup star, lost his life when his car slammed into the Turn 3 wall at NHIS, in nearly the same exact spot that claimed the life of another budding Cup star, 19-year-old Adam Petty, just 60 days earlier.
Less than two years after being named the series Rookie of the Year, Irwin would become one of four NASCAR drivers killed in a 20-month period, joining Petty, truck series driver Tony Roper and the legendary Dale Earnhardt.
And while they continue to work through their grief of losing their son, Kenny Sr. and wife Reva are building a future upon their son's memory quietly and with little fanfare. The retired couple not only has formed the Kenny Irwin Jr. Memorial Foundation to help carry on their son's legacy, they've gone one major step further. Instead of just signing and mailing checks from the foundation to deserving charitable organizations, the Irwins are backing up their words with incredibly selfless acts.
The Irwins have turned an old, abandoned campground in New Castle, Ind., about 30 miles east of Indianapolis on Interstate 70, into a living, breathing memory of their son, a place where underprivileged and handicapped children can forget about their own concerns for a few hours or days. They are supporting it primarily out of their own pockets, with neither taking any salary for their efforts.
The Kenny Irwin Memorial Campground is a place where a kid can be a kid, where he or she can have fun fishing in the well-stocked lake, interact with kids of other races and cultures, learn some valuable lessons of life and enjoy times they normally may not have an opportunity to experience.
"We have 27 acres and are looking at getting another 10 acres to do some more other things," Irwin said. "We have a seven-acre lake, paddle boats, canoes, fishing, two swimming pools, just finished an 18-hole putt-putt course, volleyball court, shuffleboard, playground, horseshoes, basketball court, cafe, recreation hall, five cabins that can house 20, plus another place that can hold 20 more, plus TV and reading rooms."
What makes this special campground all the more unique is the Irwins have purchased, built and operate it out of their own pockets, for the most part. While so much publicity has been given to other notable NASCAR-themed charitable groups -- such as Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Camp (opens next year), or Dale Earnhardt's recent tribute concert in Daytona Beach, Fla. -- the Irwins have managed to do a lot with very little and certainly nowhere near the type of fanfare and attention that the Petty and Earnhardt causes have generated.
The Irwins know they don't have the name or power that the Petty or Earnhardt surname can generate. But there's no bitterness in the Indianapolis-based clan, even though the organization is cash-strapped, with plenty of ideas for future growth and expansion, but with little funding from either the racing or business community to help make those dreams come true.
Still, the senior Irwin and his wife go forward, feeling Kenny's spirit is ever-present as a guiding force. They won't fail because his memory and legacy as a son, man and race car driver won't let them.
"Kenny felt like that he got more publicity than what he was due," Kenny Irwin Sr. said. "People made a big deal over him, and he felt like he was just like everybody else, but that he got to do something he really liked to do.
"But what Kenny wanted to do was to do something for other people, but didn't want any publicity from it, to the point where he and my wife didn't know about all the things he did until after his accident. Afterward, we started getting letters and cards and phone calls from people telling us some of the things Kenny had done. We got hundreds of calls and letters.
"One of those was from a couple whose little girl had cancer and could not afford the hospital bill. Somehow or other, they got hold of Kenny, and he paid their entire hospital bill. We had not one idea of anything like him doing something like that until after the accident. There were other things, too. I never asked about the money (how much Irwin had given to help others) or how much was spent because it wasn't important. Rather, it was the idea of what Kenny was doing."
To help generate more funding to achieve even greater achievements as the campground continues to grow, the group will host its second annual golf tournament and celebrity auction July 30 at Brickyard at the Crossings, the championship golf course adjacent to the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to hopefully add some critical funds for their equally critical mission. NASCAR will hold its annual Brickyard 400 four days later.
"It's been very difficult mentally as well as financially," Irwin, 58, admits. "We would like to have a lot of help. We have a lot of things to do, thousands of kids that we want to support, and Reva and I are the ones that spearhead it and we need anybody that would get on board to help us to make this even more successful. But in order for us to keep this thing going, we need outside sponsors and we need support from the racing community."
Among the foundation's biggest supporters have been current Winston Cup drivers Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip, as well as NHIS owners Gary and Bob Bahre and Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George. But Irwin would like to see more current drivers get involved.
At the same time, taking on stewardship of the campground and foundation that honors his son's memory has had a tremendous influence upon his own life. He watched his son start racing at four years old, and when the younger Irwin was killed three years ago, it left a tremendous void in the elder Irwin's heart and soul.
"My lifetime had been a process of taking and never giving back," he said. "It was always what I wanted, what I wanted out of life and what I wanted for my kids. It was always a process of taking from life and never giving back.
"But now, with losing Kenny, I've lost a big part of my life, and I want to try and do something like Kenny taught me. He's taught me that it's not what you take from the world, it's what you give back.
"I decided about six months after his accident that I was going to try and take a tragedy in life and try and make something good out of it. We looked for almost a year, between Charlotte and Indianapolis, to find a place, and we finally found it. We were heading to a race, we passed this place and saw a for-sale sign on it. When I walked on this land, I knew it was where I was supposed to be. I bought the property within about 30 days and have been working on it full-time ever since."
The campground, which also has a commercial side for occupants of motor homes and RV to spend a night or two, has already hosted over 300 kids since opening in April (it will remain open on a seasonal basis until November).
"No underprivileged child, for any reason, if we cannot get them sponsored, then our campground pays everything," the deeply religious Irwin said. "No kid ever pays one penny. Any kid or even any adult who has a need is welcome here at no charge.
"It's got a long way to go ... but there's one thing I cannot do: I cannot start a project that I feel the Lord has put upon me and to let him down. Regardless of how much work it needs, it's all going to be done.
"I think our campground will be very successful one day. That doesn't mean there's still not a lot of hard work ahead, and that there always will be. But, I think this campground will succeed. I have a goal to have 1,000 kids to come to this campground before this year is over."
As Irwin said, it's about giving back.
"The only thing I want, the only payment I want to take from this, is to have that child or person to have a smile on their face when they leave. That's paid in full for me. I'd like to continue what Kenny started. I'm kind of walking in his shoes now."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.