For any driver who has turned their passion into a full-time career there was a turning point, a time filled with uncertainty, hope and fear.
That time when racing became more than a hobby, more than weekend fun — it became their living. Michigan’s Steve Irwin is living in that moment.
This young sprint-car standout has been making a name for himself in Michigan for more than a decade. Irwin’s father Mark has been competing in sprint cars since the mid-1970s and Steve grew up in the sport, first dabbling with stock cars before moving to 360 sprint cars in 1996.
By 2001, Irwin was a proven champion with the Michigan-based Sprints on Dirt series and following that success, he broadened his racing horizons, racing outside the state as well as venturing onto asphalt.
Over the past 10 years Irwin has competed in 360 and 410 sprints, midgets, Silver Crown cars and the short-track truck series. Those diverse experiences have shaped Irwin as a racer.
“I really try to be a smart driver,” Irwin said. “I had to take that route originally because I didn’t have the funding to take chances. Because of that it has taken me longer to get my career off the ground, but I feel like I am coming into my prime now and I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.”
It’s the challenges that make a driver grow and learn.
“The most excited, nervous and absolutely terrified I have ever been was back in 2005 at Phoenix, running a Silver Crown car for the first time,” Irwin explained. “My teammate was a five-time Indy 500 starter, and here I was a local sprint-car driver from Michigan without asphalt track experience, but in my first practice session I was in the top 20 and ended up doing a lot better than I had ever thought I would.”
In recent years, Irwin has made an attempt to focus more on non-winged sprint events and has certainly found his niche, winning the Michigan Traditional Sprint inaugural championship in 2007 and repeating the feat again in 2009. He believes his success is due in part to the track shapes and surfaces he grew up with.
“Running a winged 360 on the smaller Michigan tracks, which are typically dry-slick, actually prepared me for non-winged competition, the way you have to really drive the car in,” Irwin said.
This season, for the first time since 2001, he will be running his own equipment, setting the schedule and competing with only the 410 engine. But he has the support of some great people, including his wife of one year, Adrianna, who will be working behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly, and his 8-year-old daughter Madison.
Irwin hopes to race at Indiana’s Kokomo and Gas City I-69 speedways while also competing in USAC- and Michigan Traditional Sprints-sanctioned events.
Having no 360 engine in the shop is Irwin’s strategy to stay focused on the big picture. “Every racer has an ego and is competitive,” he says. “When you are good in your own little region and then you get totally hammered, your first reaction is, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ but if you want to be one of the best you have to run with the best.”
Irwin, who has spent the past three years working for Brian Keselowski and K-Automotive until the shops moved to North Carolina in 2010, is very familiar with the business side of the sport and has a very simple goal.
“I just hope we can go to Indiana and turn some heads. I want to be a successful sprint-car driver, and maybe not have to go looking for a real job in the fall.”