|Alan Kulwicki in victory lane at Phoenix in 1988|
credit: Racing One/Getty Images
Phoenix International Raceway opened its gates back in 1964, hosting its first NASCAR-sanctioned race in 1978. The Cup Series didn’t take to the track until 1988, and the inaugural race turned into something special for a driver known as “Special K.”
Alan Kulwicki, a perfectionist of the highest order, was a rarity in NASCAR in the mid-to late 1980s: a Wisconsin native with a mechanical engineering degree and a stubbornness that later allowed him to turn down offers from the likes of Junior Johnson in favor of running his own team throughout his short career. In 1986, Kulwicki had just one car, two engines and two full-time crew members, but at the end of the season, he also had the Cup Series Rookie of the Year award, a testament to Kulwicki’s demands for excellence.
In 1988, Kulwicki took the advice of his long-time Midwest racing counterpart and friend Rusty Wallace and hired Paul Andrews as his crew chief. Together, the duo went to Phoenix International Raceway for the second-to-last race of the season – the first ever at the one-mile track – and brought home their first checkered flag. As a first-time Cup Series winner, Kulwicki wanted to do something different, something people would remember long after the race was over – he turned his No. 7 Ford Thunderbird around at the start-finish line and drove the track clockwise, saluting the fans with what became known as 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,” said Kulwicki in victory lane. “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 performed the Polish victory lap only once more in his career: after winning the 1992 Cup Series championship by a slim 10-point margin over Bill Elliott. Sadly, Kulwicki was never able to defend his title, as he was killed in a small plane crash on April 1, 1993. He won just five times in the Cup Series, but made enough of an impact in just over seven years in the series to be named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.