Let’s travel back in time to NASCAR in the mid 1980s. If you take a look around on race day, you’ll see the likes of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. In the midst of this, a young man walks by wearing a fire suit and carrying a briefcase. One can only imagine the whispered remarks those “good old boys” made as Alan Kulwicki walked past.
Kulwicki was originally from Wisconsin, had a mechanical engineering degree and was a college graduate. To say that he was an oddity in NASCAR is putting it mildly. But Kulwicki didn’t worry about things like fitting in; he was there to win races.
He was often described as a perfectionist and a control freak and perhaps that’s why he chose to work for himself. After all, no one else could measure up to his high standards.
Kulwicki started his rookie Cup season in 1986 with Bill Terry but when Terry decided to end his support for the race team mid-season, Kulwicki started his own team. It was a one man show starring Kulwicki as driver, owner, crew chief and mechanic.
No one thought he would succeed.
Kulwicki’s unconventional methods began to pay off when he won the 1986 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award. His first win came at Phoenix in 1988 where he first did his now famous, Polish Victory Lap, driving the opposite way on the track, with the driver’s side of the car facing the fans.
Kulwicki expressed what that first win meant to him in Grand National Scene magazine.
“It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of hard work to get here,” he said, “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.”
In 1992, Kulwicki’s commitment to excellence was finally rewarded. He overcame a 278 point deficit in the final six races of the season and won the Cup Championship at the last race of the season in Atlanta.
That day was notable for several reasons although not all were immediately apparent.
It was the closest title win in NASCAR Cup Series history until the Chase for the Cup format was implemented in 2004. Kulwicki was the last owner/driver to win the title, the first Cup champion with a college degree and the first Cup champion born in a Northern state.
I wonder if those fans at the Atlanta race had a sense of the history being made on that monumental day. A friend of mine was there and shared his memories of that day and the feeling he had that he was watching something special.
“I was there at Atlanta the day Alan won his championship,” he told me. “It was one of the most incredible and historic races I’ve ever seen, in person or otherwise. “The King” ran his last race and Jeff Gordon his first, but it was Alan who won the day, if not the race.
“It was a cold and windy day and most fans wasted little time leaving at the race’s end, but I waited down by the first turn fence for Alan to take that ride around the track in the convertible as newly crowned champion. For reasons unknown, it was something I felt compelled to do.
“As they drove slowly by my position I gave a yell of congratulations and a wave to the champ as he waved back. Little did I know we were waving goodbye.”
Kulwicki’s reign as Champion was short-lived.
The 1993 season had gotten off to a strong start and he was already ninth in the point standings when everything changed in the blink of an eye. On April 1, 1993, he was flying to the next race in Bristol, Tennessee when the plane carrying him and three others went down near Bristol. There were no survivors.
Saturday morning at Bristol, all the drivers were there as the Alan Kulwicki hauler circled Bristol and left the track for the last time.
Kyle Petty remembers that day vividly saying, “I’ve been around racing a long time and I’ve lost a son. I think the saddest thing I’ve ever seen at a racetrack was Alan’s truck leaving Bristol, Tennessee. We just sat and cried.”
On Sunday, Rusty Wallace won the race and honored his friend by doing the Polish Victory Lap. During the remainder of the 1993 season, every winning driver completed the Polish Victory Lap to honor Kulwicki’s memory.
Kulwicki was a bright light whose flame was extinguished far too soon and his life was a testament of hope that anything is possible. He did things his way and succeeded against all odds, believing in himself when no one else did.
As Alan said, “If you don’t believe, you don’t belong.”