Though it was not all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, the Winston Cup circuit was very different back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Back then, almost all the star drivers were still Southern-born and bred, most of them having started their careers racing late models on one of those storied old bullrings south of the Mason-Dixon line. A driver who showed promise might hope one day to land a ride with one of the “Good ol’ boy” teams, like Junior Johnson’s, Bud Moore’s or Richard Childress’s. Certainly, if that driver ever expected to have a chance at running for the championship, it was thought he needed to land a ride with an established team.
Then along came Alan Kulwicki. Not only was he born way north of the heart of Dixie in Greenfield, Wis., his plan – to start his own team and be an owner/driver – was almost unheard of in that day. But Kulwicki never did follow the beaten path.
He blazed his own.
Alan’s dad, Gerald, was a race-engine builder of some notoriety. While Alan wanted to get involved in racing at an early age, his father insisted he get a good education. Possessed with a genius level IQ, Alan eventually earned a college degree in mechanical engineering during an era that saw most of NASCAR’s stars drop out of school early on to pursue their racing careers. Kulwicki would use that talent at engineering to build his own racecars. Because of a tight budget, he by and large built the cars by himself, and his thorough understanding of the makeup of a racecar would make him among the best drivers at setting up a chassis the way he wanted it to feel.
Alan started racing late models at the age of 19 in 1974. His first start was at the Hale’s Corner Speedway in Wisconsin; that same year, he won his first feature race at Leo’s Speedway over in Oshkosh. Those who knew him well recall that was also the year Kulwicki decided he wanted to run in Winston Cup one day, competing for the championship. Daytona is a long way from Oshkosh; but as he did with everything in his life, Alan sat down and methodically started plotting a path to reach his goal. There was no use in anyone telling him it was an impossible dream. As Alan was fond of saying, “Obstacles are what you see in your path when you take your eyes off your goal.”
Kulwicki followed his plan, graduating from the Wisconsin short-track scene (after winning two track championships) to driving full-time on the USAC stock car racing circuit and, eventually, the ASA series. There, he befriended another future NASCAR superstar, Rusty Wallace. While friends off the track, the two drivers were fierce rivals on it, and treated the fans to some of the finest racing that series had ever known.
While it was a slight deviation from his plans, when Bill Terry offered Alan the chance to run a few Winston Cup races in 1985, Kulwicki jumped at the chance. He started his first Cup race at Richmond that fall and finished 19th. Kulwicki would make a total of five Winston Cup starts that year, with his best finish a 13th at Charlotte. Still, Bill Terry had seen enough talent in Alan to offer him a ride during the 1986 season. At that point, Alan decided it was time to move south to continue pursuing his goal of winning a Cup title. He sold his own shop and equipment, packing all his things in an old Ford truck. The day he was to leave, the electrical system of the truck caught fire. While some might have seen that as a sign to abandon their plans to move south, Alan calmly set about rewiring the truck stem to stern, then headed south the day he finished the job.
While any chance to run Winston Cup is a chance worth taking, Terry’s team was an extremely small operation. The team had only one car and two engines, with limited sponsorship from Quincy’s restaurants. The deal was thrown together so quickly that Alan arrived at Daytona to find his name misspelled on the car.
Alan’s goal that year was to run for Rookie of the Year honors. Knowing that wrecking the car would mean he would most likely miss the next race, Alan developed his trademark smooth clean driving style. He was never into swapping paint like Dale Earnhardt or driving on the ragged edge like Tim Richmond. Alan drove with his head as much as his right foot and brought his equipment home in one piece. That’s not to say he was slow; Alan had four top-10 finishes in 1986, including a fourth-place run at Martinsville that spring. Those finishes were enough to let Alan achieve his goal of winning top rookie honors.
Alan was ready to move up to the next level for 1987, but he and Terry were no longer seeing eye to eye. Kulwicki knew in his mind what the team needed to run more competitively, but Terry was not interested in spending the necessary funding to match. Instead, he sold the team to Alan, who went deeply into debt to buy that small operation. Alan began spending money, efficiently but as needed, and began building up his team. He managed 10 top-10 finishes in 1987, including a runner-up finish at Pocono in June that left him a mere second behind Earnhardt. Suddenly, no one was laughing at the dreamer anymore. Kulwicki was beginning to turn heads, and had taken a step up to the level of contender. With his tiny little race team, he finished 15th in the points that year.
The ‘87 season went well enough that Alan was able to sign on his first major sponsor, Zerex antifreeze. The deal allowed him to buy and build newer equipment as well as rent engines from Prototype Engineering. What Alan needed next was a crew chief who was as dedicated to his goals as he was.
While at the awards banquet, Kulwicki discussed who he should hire with his old friend Rusty Wallace. Wallace recommended Paul Andrews. It turned out to be a perfect match and a very successful association, as Alan was able to effectively communicate to Andrews how he wanted things done. Andrews was sold on Alan’s vision and worked tirelessly to accomplish just that. That’s not to say the pair never had words. When two perfectionists work in a high pressure environment, they are bound to cross swords occasionally. But Alan and Paul had a deep mutual respect, and they were able to talk through their differences.
Kulwicki and Andrews combined for a great season in 1988. Alan had nine top-10 finishes, including a pair of seconds and his Cup first win at Phoenix that year. After the victory, Alan did a reverse lap of the track, a move which he called his Polish victory lap. The fans loved it – but NASCAR asked Alan not to do it again. Alan smiled and told them he would never do another Polish victory lap until he won his first championship. One can imagine Bill Gazaway just rolled his eyes and walked away.
While Alan didn’t win any races in 1989, he did have four second-place finishes and was running strong week in and week out. In 1990, he won the fall race at Rockingham and finished eighth in the points. Thus, it was somewhat of a bombshell when Zerex announced they would not be returning to the team for the 1991 season. Naturally, the loss of a sponsor is a major setback to a team, and there were those who doubted that Kulwicki Racing would survive. Not Alan, though. He was convinced that he had Maxwell House locked up as a sponsor.
Meanwhile, Junior Johnson, who had perhaps the best eye for raw talent in NASCAR history, tried to convince Alan to come drive for him. Junior had owned six championship teams already, and when combined with a seven-figure salary offer, it had to have been a major temptation. But Alan’s plan was to own the team he took to the championship, and he was loyal to the team members who had stood by him. He turned down Junior’s offer, thinking once Maxwell House signed on that everything would be fine. Junior tried very hard to change Alan’s mind, for he knew – but was not at liberty to say – that Maxwell House had decided to sponsor his second team rather than Alan.
Thus, Kulwicki faced the start of the 1991 season without a sponsor. He was up front with his team, telling him he would be paying expenses out of his own pocket with no idea how far they could go into the season if no sponsor signed on. He told the team members if they chose to leave to pursue more stable employment, there would be no hard feelings.
No one chose to leave.
At Daytona that year, Alan had a rather unique one-race sponsor. The Gulf War was raging on at that point, and to show the sport’s support of the troops Winston arranged to have five cars run with the colors of one of the branches of the armed services. Alan was chosen to represent the Army, and his car was painted up black and camouflage. He managed to finish eighth in that year’s 500; but while the team had a couple decent runs after that, money was quickly running out.
Then, in a happy coincidence almost out of a fairy tale, Alan managed to grab the pole at the March race in Atlanta. At that very same race, Mark Stahl, who drove for Hooters, failed to qualify. This led Hooters to approach Alan about a one-race deal to run their colors. A shy man by nature and a devout Catholic, Alan was uncomfortable with representing the restaurant chain famous for its scantily clad and well-endowed waitresses. But to run for a championship, his team needed a sponsor, and the championship was his goal. Alan smiled and signed on the dotted line. The one-race deal quickly turned to a full-season sponsorship when Kulwicki finished eighth at that rain delayed race. Kulwicki won his first race carrying the Hooters colors at Bristol that year. Despite having started the season without a sponsor, he wound up finishing 13th in the points.
Going into 1992, Kulwicki had all the ingredients for success: a big-dollar sponsor, good equipment, a great crew chief and a ton of talent. He had an unexpected advantage in that Goodyear introduced their new radial tires, which responded better to a smooth driving style than an “on the edge” one. But he also had some pretty formidable competition in the form of Bill Elliott, who had left his family team to drive for Junior Johnson, as well as Davey Allison, who was running for the formidable Robert Yates operation. While 1992 featured one of the most competitive championship hunts ever, it was Bill, Alan and Davey who wound up being the cream of the crop.
While Davey and Bill grabbed the headlines, with Allison winning the Daytona 500 and Elliott winning four races in a row, Alan quietly kept himself in the hunt. He won twice that year, at Bristol and Pocono. While those two events might not have had the glamour of Daytona, they paid the same amount of points. Heading into the stretch drive to the title, Alan was in position to achieve his ultimate goal.
A terrible weekend at Dover that fall seemed to doom his chances. After destroying his car in practice, Alan took a backup car out and won the pole. Unfortunately, during the course of the race he tangled with Chad Little, wrecked the backup car too, and finished 34th. (That wasn’t the worst of Alan’s problems at Dover. At the first race that year, he totaled two cars in practice, had to send a flatbed to the shop to pick up a third, and wrecked that one in the race as well. Andrews recalls they only had to do five clip jobs on wrecked cars that year, and all of them were from Dover.) Alan dropped to 278 points out of the lead, and just about everyone said he had no chance to make up that big a gap with only six races to go.
Just about everyone but Alan, that is.
In subsequent races, Elliott and Allison had problems of their own, while Alan ran strong to pull himself right back into contention. Going into Atlanta for the season finale, Alan was in second position in the points, 30 behind Davey and 10 ahead of Bill. While most fans know how that championship chase turned out, many do not recall just how dicey things really were for Alan. For one thing, Davey only needed to finish fifth to guarantee himself a championship, and Atlanta was a horsepower track. Allison’s car owner, Robert Yates, knew a thing or two about horsepower, as he was one of the premier engine builders of that era. In addition, the race was sponsored by Hooters, who kept Alan running from appearance to appearance even while he desperately needed to be working on his car. Because he was a longshot, or underdog, to win the championship, Alan got permission from Ford to change the “Thunderbird” decal on the nose of his Ford to read “Underbird” for that fateful race.
Things did not go smoothly for Alan during that event. On his very first pit stop, he tore first gear out of the transmission. Because of all the shrapnel in the gearbox, Alan was eventually left with only fourth gear. While that wasn’t a problem out there on the track, it made for extremely slow pit stops, and there was a real question as to whether the transmission would survive to the end of the race. Meanwhile, Allison’s hopes were wiped out when he got into a wreck with Ernie Irvan with 75 laps to go – but Elliott had a strong horse and was running up front. Alan had a good car as well, and he too led a lot of laps.
Quietly, Andrews began calculating how many laps Alan needed to lead to be guaranteed the five-point bonus for leading the most laps, knowing the slow pit stops would make it unlikely that Alan could beat Bill for the race win. When a caution flew and Elliott pitted, Andrew told Alan to stay on the track two more laps, clinching that “Most Laps Led” five-point bonus. With that brilliant move, Andrews may very well have helped Alan win the title.
But there was still more drama to come.
Elliott was leading the race with Kulwicki in second, the position he had to finish in to win the title if Elliott was to score the race win. Again, because the Underbird only had fourth gear, Andrews decided to just pit for a gas and go on the final stop rather then changing tires. When Alan pitted, his gas man gave the car a quick shot of fuel while the rest of the crew pushed Alan’s car out of the pits, hoping to help him avoid blowing up the transmission. It wasn’t until after the pit stop, when the team measured how much fuel was left in the 11-gallon pit can, that Andrews calculated they had not gotten enough gas into the car and it was going to be very close as to whether Alan could complete the race. Andrews radioed Alan with the bad news, and there was a stunned silence on the radio.
Paul told Alan to conserve fuel as best he could, and began telling his driver how many seconds behind third-place Geoff Bodine was running. Kulwicki had a racer’s heart and would have dearly loved to challenge Elliott for the race win, but he also had his eyes on his goal… the championship. He needed to save gas but still keep Bodine behind him, and that is exactly what Alan managed to pull off. He finished second in the battle, but won the war, and became the 1992 Winston Cup champion.
After the race Alan radioed Paul and asked quietly, “Did we win it?” The crew’s enthusiastic cheering let him know that indeed he had. Alan spun the Underbird around, and true to that promise he made in Phoenix in 1988 did a Polish victory lap to celebrate his title. NASCAR didn’t seem to mind at all. After pulling into victory lane, Alan reached into his uniform and pulled out a 39-cent Ace pocket comb to straighten up his hair before emerging from the car. It was a classic Kulwicki moment: Why spend a bundle when a 39-cent item will work just as well?
The 1992 awards banquet in New York was one of the best events ever. During his speech, a gracious Elliott presented Alan with a gold-plated pocket comb, thinking the 39-cent item was a bit beneath the new champion. Alan may never have laughed so hard in public before in his life. NASCAR did a moving tribute to their new champion set to the tune of “My Way.” While public speaking was not Kulwicki’s strong point, he gave an exceptional speech that night in which he vowed to do everything in his power to make everyone associated with the sport proud of his tenure as champion.
1993 started with a great deal of optimism for Alan, Paul and the team. While a dropped valve relegated them to a poor finish at the Daytona 500, Alan had a series of strong runs early on that season. After finishing sixth at the spring race in Darlington, he had climbed back to ninth place in the points standings. There were still a lot of races left in the season, and the team was quietly confident they could repeat as champions.
On April 1st, 1993 Alan Kulwicki was flying to Bristol for that weekend’s race aboard a Hooters corporate jet. Until that year Alan had always flown commercial airliners, but with the busy commitment schedule of reigning champion, he had begun flying on corporate planes. The plane had almost reached Bristol when things went terribly wrong.
Subsequent investigations have revealed that the pilot forgot to turn on the de-icers and the engines flamed out. Earnhardt was aboard his plane not far ahead of Alan’s as it prepared to touch down. Earnhardt heard the frantic emergency calls from Kulwicki’s pilot, then the terrified screams of the plane’s passengers, including those of his friend he called “Quickie.” Then, there was an ominous silence. It was hours before the media was told the worst possible news. Alan Kulwicki and the other passengers aboard the plane had all died in the fiery wreck. Because of Alan’s celebrity, the names of the other three victims are often overlooked, but Mark Brooks, Dan Duncan and Charles Campbell also perished that night.
The NASCAR family was stunned and moved to tears by the loss of their quiet champion. The next morning the No. 7 team’s rig, with a black wreath on the grille, took two slow laps around Bristol in a driving rain, while the other teams stood along pit road silently in honor of Kulwicki.
Alan Kulwicki passed away at the age of 39. In his brief life, though, he managed to achieve the goal others had told him was impossible. His words, “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal” are a map to the path of success for others brave enough to dream. And while his reign was far too short, Alan kept the promise he made that night in New York as well. We were proud to have Alan Kulwicki as our champion, and miss him to this day.