Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of a story featuring Irish Saunders and his racing sons Eric and Garrett that appeared in the November issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine.
After Eric and Garrett Saunders were born, it wasn’t long until the old adage “like father like son” came into play and a new timeline of chasing victories began with Eric Saunders wrangling on the motocross circuit.
“I didn’t play high school sports and the boys didn’t want to play sports,” Irish Saunders said. “This is all we’ve known, we’ve been racing all our lives.”
Eric Saunders’ natural ability became apparent to his dad at the early age of 10 when he watched the boy turn laps in a micro sprint on a backyard test track built by open-wheel racing legend Bentley Warren.
“I remember thinking, ‘He’s got that throttle control, he’s got everything down for the first time and he’s only 10. This is great,’” Irish Saunders recalled.
But four-wheel competition wasn’t enough to hold Eric Saunders’ attention. He was attracted to the extreme nature of motocross. While driving professionally for Tony Stewart Racing, tragedy struck just before his 18th birthday when Eric Saunders was practicing on his home test course.
“We were down at Plymouth Speedway working when my wife, Sheila, got a call saying that Eric had been hurt bad and we needed to get home right away,” Irish Saunders said. “When we got there, Eric was still out on the course with the medics and said he had no feeling from his waist down.”
After an initial scan, the decision was made to move Eric Saunders to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. The accident left him paralyzed from his chest down with a long road ahead of him. It was during this period that the Saunders family got a taste of overwhelming support from throughout the racing world. Stewart, USAC CEO Kevin Miller and Indy car driver Davey Hamilton helped the family during its 10-week stay in the state capital, while Eric went through a long cycle of surgeries and rehabilitation.
“The racing community is very big, but the racing family is very close,” Irish Saunders said.
All through his difficult recovery, Eric Saunders never lost his zest for life and his determination to engineer a life in racing became stronger than ever.
“I always said motocrossers were a different breed of human,” Eric Saunders noted. “They’re fighters and so headstrong, and that’s what has kept me rolling, wanting it more than anyone.”
Instead of feeling derailed, Eric Saunders treated his recovery as a minor setback and looked forward to getting back behind the wheel of a race car. Soon, the Saunders family’s role in auto racing began taking a new form.
In 2011, longtime NASCAR modified campaigner Ed Kennedy purchased Plymouth Speedway and decided to make Irish Saunders his eyes and ears in operations. Suddenly, Irish Saunders found himself playing the role of speedway renaissance man, keeping an eye on all the happenings and being instrumental in the track’s transition from pavement to dirt.
Soon, Garrett Saunders felt the itch to race and climbed behind the wheel of a front-wheel-drive hornet car, winning in his first outing. “I got in the front-wheel-drive car and had a lot of fun,” Garrett Saunders said. “And from there I just really wanted to keep winning.”