Forty years on from the accident that ended his racing career, Chris Irwin made a very rare appearance at a race meeting when he took part in the 40th anniversary celebrations for the Thruxton circuit over the Easter weekend.
Irwin, now 65 years old, has rarely visited a race meeting in four decades and became something of a recluse after suffering head injuries when the Ford F3L sports car he was driving flipped at the Nürburgring in May 1968.
However, he accepted an invitation to attend the Thruxton event, which marked the 40th anniversary of the first Formula 2 race at the Hampshire circuit, and talked exclusively to Motor Sport about his life since the accident.
“When I retired from motor racing around a tree, or whatever it was, at the Nürburgring I had nothing more to do with it,” he said. “I kept away completely although I watch racing on TV occasionally. I’ve rarely been to a race meeting since I retired.”
A good deal of mystery has always surrounded his whereabouts since the accident, and Irwin confirmed that he has been married more than once and is currently living in Rutland in retirement.
“How the accident happened and why it happened, I don’t know,” he said. “I have no memory of it whatsoever. All I can remember of the weekend is that the car I was driving went incredibly quickly and every time I did a lap I came in and asked them to put a higher top gear in it. We were doing something like 240mph on the straight. It really was the most lovely piece of equipment before I finished with it.”
Irwin spent 10 days on life support following the accident. “When I woke up they asked me how I felt and I said my right ankle hurt. I’d got a broken ankle and they didn’t know about it. I had to go back to hospital quite frequently for further surgery. I had some very good treatment; the finest that money could buy. I was left with epilepsy as a legacy of the accident, which is controlled by pills, and I’m still allowed to drive.”
He says that over the 40 years since the crash he has done a lot of flying and lived on a yacht in the South of France for a number of years. But motor racing was effectively cut out of his life by the devastating accident and resultant head injuries.
“I was entirely devoted to racing,” said Irwin. “It was my career and it was just cut off. It came as a great shock and I wasn’t prepared for it. Before the accident it was looking very good and it just came to this untimely end on the old circuit at the Nürburgring. Only last week I found a picture on the Internet of the car after the crash. My god, it was a mess. The whole cockpit area was totally demolished.”
At the time Irwin was one of Britain’s most promising racers, with 10 GP starts behind him and every reason to expect more success at the highest level. Indeed the death of Mike Spence at Indianapolis a week before Irwin’s crash could have opened up a seat at BRM for the balance of the 1968 season.