Alan Kulwicki - Always A Champion
*Author's note: At the end of the 2001 Daytona 500, I learned what it is like to lose one's favorite driver. Alan Kulwicki was my husband's favorite, and this piece was written for him many years ago, at his request. It is offered again today in memory of Don and to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the day that God called home a Champion.
"I have a dream." Those words live not only as a lasting reminder of the man who spoke them, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but as the driving force in the life of a stock car racer named Alan Kulwicki.
Alan did indeed have a dream, which started in high school in his hometown of Greenfield, Wisconsin, and it was no small dream. Alan wanted to drive stock cars, but not just the Saturday night dirt track kind. Winston Cup, the top circuit in the world for stockers was where he aspired to be, and not just as a racer, but as a car owner and a champion. No small feat for a lad from the north, in what was then almost entirely a southern sport.
Now, I'm certain you're thinking that all young men of high-school age have dreams of becoming great one day, and I'm sure they do, but very few ever go about it in the plodding, methodical way that Alan chased his dream. At the urging of his father Gerald, Alan continued his schooling far beyond the secondary level, to earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering, while continuing to race on the small local tracks in the Midwest. He was not only capable of driving racecars, but became proficient at building them as well, knowing first hand every part of the cars he piloted.
With degree in hand, he moved from the local tracks to the USAC stock car circuit, and on to the ASA after that, where he met Rusty Wallace, who would become his lifelong friend. By 1984, Alan tried a few Busch Grand National races, and caught the eye of the owner of a small racing team named Bill Terry, who offered him a chance to run a few Winston Cup races in 1985.
The 5 races he ran that year, with a best finish of 13th, were good enough to persuade Terry to offer him a fulltime ride in 1986. Alan went home to Wisconsin, sold his own race shop there, and headed south with his few belongings packed into an old and not too trusty pick-up truck, to follow his dream. That year he won the Rookie of the Year award, and step one of his plan was accomplished.
Before the start of the new season in 1987, Alan took on tremendous debt to buy the race team from Bill Terry, so that he might be able to run it in what he saw as the right way. I've heard it said that the way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a big one, but Alan was determined and dedicated to making it work on a shoestring, as it were. He was frugal to be sure, but knew instinctively what was needed to make a team competitive. Struggling through that year with scant funding and little in the way of sponsorship, he still managed to score 10 top-ten finishes, and wound up 15th in the point standings. That was good enough to attract a major sponsor in Zerex anti-freeze, and the money crunch was over for the time being.
His friend Rusty introduced him to Paul Andrews when he was looking for a crew chief, and that turned out to be a very good thing for both of them. Together, he and Paul set to work on the fledgling team, and began building it together, with Paul becoming as excited about the dream as Alan himself. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether or not Alan was excited, as his usual cool demeanor tended to hide his real feelings much of the time.
At this point, I have to digress for a moment, and recall for the reader a series of television ads that he did for Zerex, accompanied by Rusty. They turned out to be uproariously funny. So much so that I have every one of them on tape to this day. (Unfortunately, I have no idea which tapes out of the hundreds I have) As an example, one ad showed the boys packing the car for vacation, with Rusty packing beach gear and Alan stowing away snow shoes and the like. When they finish, an effervescent Wallace proclaims, "I'll drive!" A totally deadpan Kulwicki replies, "No, I'll drive. I've seen you drive!" Maybe you had to be there, but trust me, it was funny!
That one is not to be found on YouTube, but I did find a couple of those short Zerex ads. Please enjoy:
The following year saw Alan take nine top ten finishes and his first win in Winston Cup at Phoenix, the very first year that track was added to the schedule. It was here that we got to see, for the first time, the famous "Polish Victory Lap", when he turned the car around and circled the track backwards, while waving to the fans. The fans might have loved it, but NASCAR did not, and Alan promised he would never do it again unless it was for a championship.
The team raced well in the next two years but evidently not up to the standard Zerex would have liked, because despite an 8th place finish in the points in 1990, they withdrew their sponsorship, and the team faced 1991 without one. Just at the time Alan thought he had sponsorship lined up with Maxwell House Coffee, renowned car owner Junior Johnson approached him with an offer to become his driver. Alan was polite, as always, but declined the offer, still keeping his eyes on the prize that he envisioned, that of becoming an owner/driver/champion. As it worked out, though Alan kept the vision, Junior took the sponsor, and the ensuing year looked bleaker than ever.
If you recall, the Daytona 500 that year was run while the Gulf War was being fought, and NASCAR drivers and fans were happy to do what they could to show support for the troops. Five cars wore special lettering that day, each one representing a different branch of the US military, and Alan's unsponsored car proudly proclaimed the word ARMY on the deck lid and quarter panels. (I can look up from where I sit, and on the wall over my desk, is an autographed picture of Alan and that #7 sporting a camouflage paint scheme. Tucked away behind it, there is a signature authentication signed by some guy named Bob Yates, who used to deal in sports memorabilia in his spare time.
The car came home in 8th place that day, but the team remained sponsorless until Alan won a pole at Atlanta in March, while Mark Stahl, whose car carried sponsorship from Hooters Restaurants, failed to make the race. Hooters approached Alan about putting their name on his unlettered car for one race, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That one race with an 8th place finish quickly turned into a full year's sponsorship, and the dream was back on schedule. The end of 1991 found Alan 13th in points and Hooters back on the car for the following year.
1992 was one of the most competitive years ever for the Cup championship. By the time it drew to a close at Atlanta, there were at least 5 drivers with that famous "mathematical" chance to win, but realistically it was Alan, Davey Allison and Bill Elliott, with Mark Martin and Harry Gant having an outside shot if the other three dropped out early. Unfortunately, one of them did, when a spinning Ernie Irvan collected Davey in the wreck and ended his day. Davey had gone into the race with a 30 point lead, and had needed only to finish 5th to assure the championship, but with his early exit the race became even closer, with Alan a scant 10 points ahead of Bill. Alan would have trouble on the first pit stop, losing first gear, and eventually having only fourth gear to run with. Despite that, he and Bill took turns leading throughout the race, and with laps winding down, Paul Andrews got out a very sharp pencil and did some fast calculating. With the last pit stop coming up he let Elliott pit but kept Alan on the track almost to the end of his available fuel. He had figured well, because by only one lap, Alan claimed the 5 points for leading the most laps, which were to become invaluable very soon.
When Alan finally pitted, Andrews knew they had been out too long to overtake Elliott for the race win, and decided to do only a gas and go, to allow more time for pushing the car off pit road in its only remaining gear. That went well, in that the car did not stall trying to get back to speed. Despite a miscalculation on how much gas they had gotten into the car, which had Alan conserving as best he could for the remaining laps, the #7 finished in second place, to a winning Bill Elliott. The battle was lost, but the war was won, and Alan Kulwicki, owner and driver, was the 1992 Winston Cup Champion. (Just a side note here: Junior Johnson, owner of Elliott's #11 car subsequently fired long time crew chief Tim Brewer, who evidently didn't count as well as Andrews.) As soon as the race was over, Alan radioed to Andrews, asking, "Did we win it?" Assured that he had indeed won the championship, he turned the "Underbird" around and once more performed his Polish Victory Lap, much to the delight of every fan watching. "Underbird" was the name Alan had adopted, with Ford's permission, for his constantly struggling little race team, and what it actually read on the car, where all the other Fords said "Thunderbird."
In your author's haste to tell Alan's story, a few notable details of that race were elided, such as the fact that it was "King" Richard Petty's last race, bringing to a close his "Fan Appreciation Tour", and the very first time in Winston Cup that the fans got to watch a young talent by the name of Jeff Gordon, who managed only a 31st place finish. How things were to change! No one knew when the race started that we were viewing what would undoubtedly be dubbed the race of the century.
Shortly after the race, when the “smoke” had cleared and the press was satisfied, Alan sat with friends and discussed all that had gone on in his career, from the burning desire that drove a kid from Wisconsin to make it in the big time, to his desire to excel at being a Champion. "I know from my experience in the sport, that the chance to win a championship might never come to us again--either to me as a driver, or to us as a team. I want to be as good a champion as I can be, in case the chance never happens again." At the very end of the conversation, he added this in parting: "If what I have been able to accomplish in this sport by winning the Championship makes somebody dream bigger, work harder, and accomplish something they think they can't, then I'll feel I made an impact as the Champion”
The Winston Cup Banquet in 1992 was truly an extravaganza, complete with a filmed panorama of Alan's life, backed all the way by Paul Anka’s song, "My Way". (Sinatra sang it, but Anka wrote it) Alan had most assuredly done it "his way", from transplanting his northern roots to the Deep South, to following his life plan to the letter, and managing to grab that once in a lifetime brass ring.
On April 1st, 1993, Alan caught a corporate jet, along with Mark Brooks, (son of the owner of Hooters), Dan Duncan and Charles Campbell, bound for the next race, at Bristol Tennessee. It is my understanding that Paul Andrews was also scheduled to be on the flight, but changed his mind at the last minute and decided to drive to Bristol instead. As the plane approached the Bristol airport, something went very wrong, and the radio lit up with emergency calls. It is speculated that perhaps ice on the wings may have played a factor, but the plane crashed and burned at the airport, as then five time Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt sat aboard his own jet, which had just landed, and watched in horror. There were no survivors!
We weren't at the Bristol race that fateful weekend, and I'm not sure how those that were could have handled it as they watched the #7 hauler take two ceremonial laps around that great little bullring, and slowly leave the track, knowing their driver and Champion would never be back. We were at the next two races that year, Martinsville and North Wilkesboro, and the entire atmosphere could only be described as "bittersweet." We wore black armbands, with an orange #7 sewn on, and almost every fan at both tracks displayed some vestige of remembrance for the fallen Champion. There was a great sadness throughout the crowds but there was also that comforting feeling of camaraderie that exists between those who have shared a common tragedy. No one wanted to grieve alone, so they came to grieve together.
Alan Kulwicki never got to enjoy his full reign as champion.
He never got to see his 39th birthday. One has to think though, that as short as his life on this earth was, he truly made the most of it. He had the vision, he chased the dream, he won the prize, and above all else, he did it his way! Rest easy Alan. You will always be a Champion!
Gentle readers, there will be no Classic Country Closeout accompanying this article. Instead, please watch the short ESPN tribute to our fallen Champion; hear and feel the emotion from various members of that broadcast team as they bade a hastily filmed farewell to our 1992 Winston Cup Champion, Alan Kulwicki. Following that tribute, you can hear Alan’s speech at the 1992 Winston Cup Awards Banquet. It comes in two parts; the first part is mostly the “Thank yous;” the second part is Alan at his finest.
Following that, your scribe offers the song that will forever be associated with Alan’s name and life… “My Way.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!