"The Shirt" ~ One Fan’s Memorial to Alan Kulwicki
Note: This is a story that needed to be told for a long time. For years, I only knew a part of it, so could only make reference to it. I’m honored that on the 25th anniversary of the passing of Alan Kulwicki, my friend Lesa Dillon agreed to tell “the rest of the story” so that I could share it with you. Please enjoy “The Shirt” and its incredible journey.
It started out as an accident. It became something that would be “cool” to do. The King said it would be a memorial to Alan.
This is the untold story how one new NASCAR fan, Lesa Dillon set out to capture the names of all the Winston Cup drivers who were driving when Alan Kulwicki won his 1992 Championship as her tribute to him.
This is the story of what became known as “The Shirt.”
“The Shirt” started off innocently enough. It didn’t begin as a memorial at all; it was more of an accident you could say. Lesa, a new NASCAR fan, had made the trip to nearby Louisville Motor Speedway to watch some of the Cup boys try their hand in the late models on the 3/8ths mile track. The Granger Select “Race of Champions” was a big deal back in 1993 as Andy Vertrees and company would turn the weekly sanctioned short track into a mini-version of a Cup race complete with Cup drivers, show cars, autograph sessions and big time Cup souvenirs.
“The Shirt” started as just a souvenir. Though Lesa was new to the sport, she had seen the impact Alan had on other fans and had decided to get a shirt-his shirt. It was the gray one-not the flashy Hooters shirts that were more common then. Maybe you remember it? Maybe you have one?
It was a great night of racing as Bobby Hillin Jr. showed Ted Musgrave, Mike Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and Rick Wilson the fast way around the track.
After the race, Lesa was capturing the moments, standing next to the grandstand, taking photos when someone asked her how she enjoyed the race. She looked up and it was Mike Waltrip, cold beer in hand, just chilling after the race while waiting to be transported with the other drivers to the airport. She did what race fans do and asked him for his autograph. It was then she realized she didn’t have anything for him to sign, so she pulled out the souvenir shirt. Even though it wasn’t one of his shirts, Mike gladly signed it.
He even agreed to a picture which was quite a sight-the 6’5” tall Waltrip with his arm wrapped around our 5’ tall race fan.
Shortly after that, Terry Labonte walked up and she asked him to sign the shirt too. He, like Mike, added his name without hesitation. With these first two, she thought it would be “cool” to try and collect as many as possible and that’s where and how the journey began.
Its next stop was Indy in 1994, for practice. Indy wasn’t the best place to get autographs as a tall chain-link fence separated the fans from the drivers but she didn’t let that stop her. She happened to spot second year driver Jeff Gordon before the rest of the crowd realized he was even there, but when he saw she had a shirt to sign he said he wouldn’t sign it. He explained the last person tried to toss their shirt over the fence, it got stuck on the top of the fence and got ripped when they tried to get it down. Jeff didn’t want that to happen to hers.
She turned to leave when the rest of the crowd realized Jeff was there and swarmed, shoving her up against the fence. Jeff must have felt bad about it and said that if she could roll the shirt small enough to fit through the hole in the fence, he would sign it.
Of course, she succeeded and with her shirt now on that side of the fence, not only did Jeff add his name but he then passed it to Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Red Farmer who added their names as well. Red was able to roll it up and stuff it back through the hole in the fence to get it back to her.
Being new to the sport, she didn’t know who Red Farmer was and really wasn’t all that happy that he had signed her shirt. When she got back to her group in the grandstands and showed them the names that had been added they were shocked she had been able to get Red’s signature. With that, she decided it was alright to have Red Farmer on her shirt too.
It was then back to Louisville where she added several more names, including the most special one, Richard Petty. About her encounter with the King, Lesa said, “I couldn’t believe that I got his (autograph), let alone the opportunity to meet him. He was so down to earth and very friendly.”
It was that meeting that changed everything. Before he signed the shirt, Lesa explained that she was trying to get all the drivers’ autographs who were driving when Alan was. The King observed that this then was a memorial to Alan. She had never thought of it that way and at that moment that shirt became “The Shirt.”
Her mission changed as did the path “The Shirt” traveled, as it soon found itself on the NASCAR circuit. Over the next few seasons it made trips to Atlanta, Charlotte, Michigan, Talladega and Daytona and at each race weekend additional names were added. Though at different tracks, the routine was the same-“The Shirt” traveled in a fanny pack that Lesa would put on when she arrived at the track and it didn’t go back up until they left at the end of the race weekend.
At every stop she would seek out more drivers, more names for the “The Shirt.” Driver after Cup driver heard its story and eagerly and graciously adding their names, never hesitating because it wasn’t “their stuff.”
Along the way, the Busch drivers saw what was going on, heard its story and wanted to be a part. In some ways they were as enthusiastic if not more so to sign “The Shirt” as they would ask her if they could sign it. So on it you will see the names of many of the Busch drivers mixed in with the Cup drivers. Johnny Benson Jr., before he signed asked if it was OK to put both his Busch and Cup car numbers next to his name as he was competing in both series at the time.
It wasn’t just drivers. If you look close you might see a car owner, a flag man or maybe a mechanic who also wanted to be a part.
Everywhere Lesa went, if there was a chance to get a signature she was always prepared to tell its story and ask a driver if they wanted to be a part and put their name on “The Shirt.” Yet, if she saw drivers out, away from the track like at a restaurant, she was always respectful of that personal time and would never impose.
It was most fitting that she got the majority of drivers’ names at Bristol. It was at Bristol where Alan entered that weekend as the defending race winner, winning the spring race in 1992. It was Bristol where he won his final victory that night in 1993.
She got several at the “Meet the Drivers” event the Friday night before the race. She hit the jackpot when her friend, Judy Benson, mother of driver Johnny Benson Jr. (that a story itself) got her a pit-pass there. “I lost count on how many I got that weekend.”
“Handsome” Harry Grant added his name at his souvenir trailer there. She was walking among the trailers when “Mr. Excitement” Jimmy Spencer walked like he sometime drove on the track, didn’t see her and bumped into her. Apologizing profusely, Jimmy signed “The Shirt”, her seat cushion and about anything else she had to sign in an effort to make up to her.
One of her more unusual signings took place in the most unlikely of places as Lesa shares, “At one of the Bristol races I had forgotten my sunscreen and went to the K-Mart in Kingsport to get some. As I came around the end of the aisle I was struck in the shoulder by a bottle of shampoo. I was shocked when I realized that Kenny Wallace had thrown the bottle for Chad Little to catch and he missed, thus striking me. Chad was so embarrassed and after Kenny stopped laughing, they both apologized. Of course, Kenny being the clown he was blamed Chad for the whole incident. Luckily, I had the shirt with me and got their autographs. That’s the least they could do! The women that they were with told them to stop acting like children and they left. I thought it was hysterical.”
As “The Shirt’s” journey wound down, there were only two names that remained. Most appropriately, she got the final name there at Bristol as she tells that story in her own words,
“The best one, and most memorable was Dale Earnhardt. I watched (stalked) him for several hours during practice. Then it happened. He exited his car and walked to the restroom. Once I realized where he was going, I didn’t want to stop him. So, I waited patiently. He left the restroom and started walking at a very fast pace! I followed him and the whole time was telling him about the shirt and that I only needed 2 more to complete it. I told him that I would be thrilled and grateful to have his included. To my surprise, he stopped and turned around and signed it. I couldn’t believe it! I then apologized for following him to the restroom and he smiled and walked away.”
With that, she got what would be her final signature.
Lesa now had all the names of the Cup drivers who had competed against Alan in his Championship season, but two.
One, she could not get-it was Davey Allison’s. Davey had died tragically in a helicopter crash shortly after she started collecting names. Unable to get Davey’s name, Bobby Allison placed his name on “The Shirt” at a book signing at his souvenir store in Lexington, KY. It was a touching sight to see him add the Allison name to the shirt that carried the image of the driver who had competed against his son, Davey for the 1992 Championship.
The other, for reasons known only to him, over the next few years repeatedly refused to add his name to “The Shirt.” You know him. He’ll be the one in the booth announcing along with Jeff Gordon and starting this week’s race with his signature “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” send off.
Finally, in 2001, “The Shirt’s” journey ended as it was taken out of the fanny pack and put away for the last time.
Alan often quoted former Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi. One quote became his mantra: “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.”
In his chase for perfection he achieved excellence, winning the 1992 Winston Cup Championship.
This one fan, Lesa Dillon, armed with a shirt and a Sharpie set out to remember; to memorialize a fallen Champion. For eight seasons she relentlessly chased perfection-to get all the drivers who raced against Alan to put their names on Alan’s shirt. Some might say that in that pursuit of perfection she got excellence. I contend she achieved perfection-the perfect memorial to Alan Kulwicki.
The first driver to put his name on “The Shirt” was Mike Waltrip. He and Alan had come into Cup together. They competed against one another for the 1986 Rookie of the Year. Mike won the first race after Alan’s passing on that tragic weekend twenty five years ago. After taking the Checkered Flag, Mike was the first driver after Alan to do a “Polish Victory Lap” (albeit, not a complete lap out of respect to Alan). So it’s only fitting that “The Shirt” begins with the one Alan started his Cup career with.
It was The King, Richard Petty, who changed the shirt from a souvenir to a memorial-from her shirt to “The Shirt.” We all know Richard Petty’s impact on the sport, but it was in his final NASCAR race, the Hooters 500 in Atlanta that Alan won his first Championship.
Dale Earnhardt was the last name on “The Shirt.” No driver was more dominant during the brief time Alan raced in Cup than Dale Earnhardt. Dale was going for his third Cup Championship in a row when Alan won his Championship in 1992. In that tragic 1993 season, Dale reassumed the Championship and won his seventh and final one in 1994. For the first five seasons of the 1990’’s there were only two drivers who were Winston Cup Champions-Alan Kulwicki and Dale Earnhardt.
On that tragic night twenty-five years ago, it was Dale’s plane that landed safely at Tri-County Airport immediately in front of Alan’s. They heard the final radio transmissions. Dale was the first driver to know. When that tragic season ended, it was Dale Earnhardt, 1993 Winston Cup Champion who carried the flag of our fallen Champion on that final Polish Victory Lap in Atlanta.
Driver after driver, Cup and Busch drivers alike, graciously put their name on the memorial. In doing so, they not only became a part of “The Shirt”, but “The Shirt” became a part of them, part of their memories of Alan. Together, there on that unassuming piece of gray fabric that carried the likeness of a fallen Champion, the racing fraternity had one last chance to say good-bye. It was one fan’s way, to say good-bye as well, in her perfect way.
And that race fans is the story of “The Shirt” and one determined fan’s memorial to Alan Kulwicki.
Thank you Lesa, for the memorial, the memories, the pictures and most of all sharing the story of “The Shirt” and its incredible journey. May it and its story live on for many years to come.
Post Script - Since then, “The Shirt” has made one more stop. As life goes on, things change. Even with all the years of hard work Lesa put into “The Shirt”, many years later she was able to part with it, passing it on to a friend and fellow race fan whom she knew would fully appreciate it.
That, Race Fans is another story for another day.