Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the Rearview Mirror: Remembering Alan Kulwicki

It was 18 years ago, on April 1, 1993 that Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash just prior to Bristol. In his memory, I salute him in this installment of In the Rearview Mirror.

Credit: RacingOne/Getty Images


Alan Kulwicki was born Dec. 14, 1954 in Greenfield, Wisconsin. Greenfield, a suburb on Milwaukee, was rich in Polish American history. During his childhood, Kulwicki's mother and brother died, the later due to complications from hemophilia.

After graduating high school, Kulwicki went to college at the University of  Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering.

Alan began his racing career at the age of 13, racing karts. Kulwicki’s father Gerry built engines for USAC cars and was often too busy to help young Alan when he asked for advice. Undeterred, Alan moved onto racing stock cars, starting on local dirt tracks in Wisconsin. In 1973, he won the Rookie of the Year award at Hales Corners Speedway in Franklin. The following year he moved on to racing late models, claiming his first win at Leo's Speedway in Oshkosh.

In 1979, Kulwicki began competing in the American Speed Association (ASA) where he raced until 1980. Through his racing with ASA, he met fellow NASCAR up-and-comer Rusty Wallace. The two developed a friendship that would last into their days in NASCAR.

Alan made a few starts in the Busch (now Nationwide) Series in 1984 and 1985. After starting from the pole at the Milwaukee Mile, he was able to catch the eye of race team owner Bill Terry. Terry offered Alan a ride in a few Winston Cup races (Winston is now Sprint Cup).

Alan Kulwicki made the big move to NASCAR in 1985, selling his personal belongings to move south to Charlotte, the hot spot for all things NASCAR-related. With little more than his pickup and trailer filled with furniture and tools, Alan made the move.

Upon his arrival, other drivers were somewhat amused: never before was a driver seen walking the garage with a briefcase while wearing his fire suit. But Kulwicki became known for his strong work ethic and unwavering focus. 


Kulwicki started his rookie season in 1986 with the team of Bill Terry. In the middle of the season, Terry decided to end his team due to financial support, but Alan did not give up. Kulwicki decided to field his own team, like he had done as a child. Kulwicki wore many hats - driver, owner, mechanic and crew chief, all rolled up into one. 

Alan was very much a perfectionist and that plagued him when it came to finding crew members for his team. He needed to be able to see the high level of excellence in their work and also be able to trust them to do so. Kulwicki worked with such notable crew members as Tony Gibson (now crew chief for Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas Racing), mechanic then crew chief Paul Andrews, Brian Whitesell (Hendrick Motorsports) and most notably Ray Evernham. Ray, who worked with the Jeff Gordon during his most memorable seasons, only lasted six weeks with Kulwicki. 

Kulwicki's rookie season was a success in the fact that he won the Rookie-of-the-Year title, had four top-10 finishes and all this with just one car, two engines and two full-time crew members.


For the 1987 season, things were looking up. Kulwicki changed his car number to the #7 and secured a sponsorship with Zerex Antifreeze. In the third race of the season at Richmond, Alan claimed the pole, the first of his Winston Cup career. Alan finished 6th in that race. He would later claim additional poles at Richmond and Dover. His best finish this season came at Pocono; Alan started in the second position and that is exactly where he finished as well. This was his highest finish in the 1987 season. He finished the year with nine top-10 finishes and was ranked 15th in the Winston Cup points standings.



Kulwicki was advised by his friend, Rusty Wallace, to hire Paul Andrews as his crew chief for the 1988 season. This was the season that Alan Kulwicki would get his first win, in the second-to-last race of the year at Phoenix International Raceway. Ricky Rudd was leading but later encountered engine problems. Alan led 41 laps that day, finishing the race with an 18.5-second margin of victory. After collecting the checkered flag, Alan drove around the track clockwise (backwards) and called this the Polish Victory Lap:
"It's been a long road and it's taken a lot of hard work to get here, but this has made it all worthwhile. When you work for something so hard for so long, you wonder if it's going to be worth all of the anticipation. Believe me, it certainly was. And what do you think of my Polish victory lap? There will never be another first win and you know, everybody sprays champagne or stands up on the car. I wanted to do something different for the fans."
                         —Kulwicki, as quoted in Grand National Scene magazine
Alan finished the 1988 season with one win, seven top-5s and nine top-10 finishes. He finished 14th in points.

For the 1989 season Kulwicki decided to build his own engines. He had four second-place finishes and was leading the points after the fifth race of the season. But the team suffered nine engine failures and dropped in the points. He ended the season with six pole positions, nine top-10 finishes and finished 14th in season points.

Prior to the 1990 season, Kulwicki was approached by team owner Junior Johnson to drive one of his cars. Alan declined, as his interest was in running his own team. That season, he got his second Winston Cup win, at Rockingham. Kulwicki finished the season eighth in points after 13 top-10 finishes and one pole position. 

Before the 1991 season, Kulwicki was left without a sponsor after Zerex cut ties, and Junior Johnson again came to Alan looking to sign him as a driver. Johnson offered Kulwicki $1 million, but he turned it down, thinking had secured sponsorship with Maxwell House. Instead, Maxwell House signed with Johnson's team, leaving Kulwicki to start the 1991 season sponsorless. After the third race of the season Kulwicki was approached with a one-race deal with Hooters to sponsor him for the Atlanta race. Hooters was a sponsor for another driver, Mark Stahl, who failed to qualify for the race. Kulwicki finished 8th with the Hooters-sponsored car, leading to a long-term deal with the sponsor. Later that season, Kulwicki got his 3rd win, this time at Bristol's night race. Alan finished the 1991 season with 11 top-10 finishes, four poles and 13th in the points.


                                                             


Hooters returned for the 1992 season and Alan Kulwicki was off to a strong start. In the first fives races, Alan had three top-10 finishes. The sixth race of the season was Bristol, where Alan started from the pole and won the race. From that point forward Kulwicki was consistently in the top-5 in the Winston Cup points standings. Alan only had one other victory that season, the first race at Pocono. Many had not included Kulwicki in the talk of championship contenders earlier in the year; he was expected to fade in his contention chances.

After a crash at Dover, Kulwicki was 278 points behind leader Bill Elliott. Elliott had some bad luck two races in a row, tightening up the points battle. Davey Allison assumed the points lead, with Kulwicki in second and Elliott fell to third.

The season all came down to the final race of the year, the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. This was the final race for Richard Petty and the first for newcomer Jeff Gordon. Kulwicki knew going into this race he was the underdog, so much so he asked NASCAR and Ford to rename his car the "Underbird" instead of Thunderbird.


                                                                               Credit: http://wikimedia.org

During the first pit stop of the race, the "Underbird" encountered problems. The first gear broke in Alan's transmission. Crew chief Paul Andrews said, "We had to leave pit road in fourth gear, because we had broken metal parts in there, and only by leaving it in fourth are you not going to move metal around as much. We could only hope that the loose piece of metal didn't get in there and break the gears in half. We had three or four pit stops after it broke. I held my breath all day long." 

Davey Allison was racing aside Ernie Irvan when Irvan's tire blew, sending Allison into the side of Irvan's spinning car. The wreck left Allison's car with significant damage and ended his shot at the title. 

The championship bout came down to Kulwicki and Elliott, who would battle it out for every point possible. Alan was leading the race and crew chief Andrews made the call for him to pit only after knowing he had claimed the bonus points for leading the most laps. The final pit stop was a fuel-only stop to save time, and this allowed them to be able to push the car since they had to keep it running in a high gear. The gas man hurried during the stop and did not get enough fuel in; as a result, Alan had to conserve fuel to still be running on the final laps of the race. Elliott won the race, Kulwicki finished second but clenched the 1992 Winston Cup Championship by a mere 10 points. Kulwicki celebrated this milestone by performing the Polish Victory Lap for the second time ever.


Kulwicki was the last owner/driver to win a championship, making his 1992 win notable for many reasons. This was the closest title win in NASCAR history (prior to the Chase format we have today). Alan was also the first NASCAR champion with a college degree and to hail from a Northern state. When the year-ending NASCAR banquet showed a video salute of Kulwicki, the accompanying song was Frank Sinatra's "My Way."


Alan returned to race for the 1993 season, but just prior to the Bristol race he was tragically killed in a plane crash. 


Kulwicki was posthumously inducted into the Lowe's Motor Speedway Court of Legends in 1993, Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993, Talladega-Texaco Hall of Fame in 1996, Bristol Motor Speedway Heroes of Bristol Hall of Fame in 1997, the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame in 2001, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2010. 

Kulwicki will forever be remembered as one of the great owner/drivers in NASCAR history. Many of today's drivers have recognized Kulwicki as an influence. Robby Gordon currently drives the #7 and has mentioned Alan as his inspiration as an owner/driver. Kulwicki's impact is still seen today, ranging from owner/drivers such as Tony Stewart to Kurt Busch's post-race celebration of the "unwind," a take on the Polish Victory Lap. It may be 18 years ago that Kulwicki passed away, but clearly he had a lasting impact on NASCAR.

 

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