Remembering the Underbird

Hooters 500I still can’t imagine that it has been 23 years since we lost Alan Kulwicki in a plane crash as he was headed to Bristol Motor Speedway. The sight of the No. 7 hauler taking the lap around Bristol before leaving the track still brings a chill up my back.

Kulwicki did things his way. He brought engineering into NASCAR and now 23 years later, most crew chiefs are engineers. Future crew chief and owner, Ray Evernham, lasted six weeks with Kulwicki in 1992. Evernham later said, “The man was a genius. There’s no question. It’s not a matter of people just feeling like he was a genius. That man was a genius. But his personality paid for that. He was very impatient, very straightforward, very cut-to-the-bone.”

When Kulwicki started his own team he served as his own engineer and crew chief. Eventually, he hired Paul Andrews as the crew chief and the team also featured two future crew chiefs, Tony Gibson, the current crew chief for Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing and Brian Whitesell who succeeded Ray Evernham as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon.

In the early 1990s, very few people would say no to Junior Johnson. When Johnson was looking to replace Terry Labonte, he offered the seat to Kulwicki who said no because he wanted to run his own team. Kulwicki had another run-in with Johnson. In 1991, Johnson wanted to start a second team and offered Kulwicki $1 million to drive for him. The Wisconsin owner/driver turned him down thinking he had secured Maxwell House as a sponsor for his team. Johnson wound up taking the Maxwell House sponsorship and hired Sterling Marlin to drive the No. 22 Maxwell House Ford for Johnson and Kulwicki started the 1991 season without sponsorship.

Kulwicki would eventually secure Hooters to sponsor his car for one race in 1991 and it grew into a multi-year commitment. That commitment from Hooters and Kulwicki’s determination turned into magic in 1992. It was a season of consistency. He scored two victories and only had two finishes outside the top-20 all season. When the team rolled through the gates for the 1992 Hooters 500, Kulwicki was second in points, trailing Davey Allison by 30 points. He went to Ford and NASCAR to get approval to have Underbird on the car because he relished the underdog role.

During the race, points leader Allison was involved in a wreck with Ernie Irvan and fell out of contention. It became a battle between Bill Elliott and Kulwicki to determine the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup championship. Elliott won the Hooters 500, but Kulwicki managed  a second place finish to capture the series championship.

The 1992 Hooters 500 is one for the NASCAR record books. It was Richard Petty’s final race, Jeff Gordon’s first race and the day the Underbird took Alan Kulwicki to the championship.

It was a championship he wouldn’t defend. After an appearance at the Hooters in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kulwicki was flying to Bristol when his plane crashed on final approach to the airport. Kulwicki was gone at the age of 38.

His legacy continues in the sport. Tony Gibson is still on a pit box, engineers are the life blood of Sprint Cup success for any team and now the Alan Kulwicki Driver Development Program is helping worthy drivers along the way to reaching their dream.

It’s been 23 years since NASCAR lost a true independent owner/driver who did it his way. Tony Stewart has won a championship since Kulwicki as an owner-driver, but Stewart also had the partnership with Gene Haas and support from Hendrick Motorsports. Kulwicki did it on his own.

I can still see the Hooters No. 7 taking the Polish Victory Lap waving to the fans and I will always wonder how much more he could have accomplished if he wasn’t taken so soon.

Rest in peace, Alan Kulwicki. You are still missed.

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