Doing It His Way: Alan Kulwicki Was NASCAR's Most Unique Champion
His NASCAR Sprint Cup career only spanned nine years, which were filled with the most courageous grits and determination ever seen in any racing series.
Faithful to do things his way, the pride of Greenfield, Wisc. ironically set a trend in the most premier stock car ranks while once spurning an offer to drive for one of the most legendary of drivers in the sport's history in the form of Junior Johnson.
It's hard to believe that 17 years ago on this day, Alan Dennis Kulwicki, who was surely establishing himself as a NASCAR great with his miraculous, championship banner year in 1992, was killed in a tragic aviation accident that took the lives of three other individuals.
Eager to prove to the fans, media, as well as to himself, that the dream lived on to his accord and terms, the 1986 Rookie of the Year winner entertained fans with his unorthodox methods in a 207-race career that resulted in five wins, 38 top-five finishes, 75 top-10's, and 24 pole positions.
New school fans probably know about "Special K" through historical footage, often showing various clips from his title season back in '92. Driving the infamous No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird, his white and orange machine became a regular staple among the lead pack.
As one of six contenders heading into the season finale that year, Kulwicki faced off against the likes of Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, and Mark Martin. Certainly, his rivals were truly some of the best in the sport, although Elliott was the only driver that previously won a title.
Heading into the finale, Allison held the advantage over Kulwicki by 30 points, with Elliott trailing the second-generation sensation by 40 markers. Gant, Petty, and Martin were somewhat in striking distance, although their chances of winning the title were only mathematically possible.
While this particular story's been retold several times, it goes without saying how the Hooters 500 race truly served as a microcosm and testament to the kind of effort put forth by Kulwicki and crew chief Paul Andrews. Yes, it's the season finale that closed out the career of seven-time champion Richard Petty and opened the Cup legacy of some unknown named Jeff Gordon.
All year long, the No. 7 lurked in the points race, which was virtually dominated by Elliott and Allison, arguably the stars of 1992. Ford was experiencing quite a year in the sport, having won 15 of the 28 races ran that year heading into Atlanta.
Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile were steps behind the Blue Oval, which made gains in the engine department. To put it in astonishing terms, Ford won the first nine races of the season, which included a victory by Kulwicki at Bristol, Tenn.
How apparent was the disparity between General Motors and Ford Motor Company that year? Consider this: Dale Earnhardt, who was the face of the GM power plant and cars in NASCAR, finished a disappointing 12th, only winning one race in an otherwise miserable campaign for the car company.
Going back to Kulwicki's story, his chances of winning the title in the season finale were as far and beyond as the Buffalo Bills winning a Super Bowl in the 1990s: he didn't seem to have a prayer of an opportunity to triumph as the ultimate racer in the NASCAR Cup level.
Especially following his accident in the fall race at Dover, the usually upbeat independent all but considered himself as a player in the title race. He knew that barring any bizarre circumstances, he would have to wait another year to compile a prayer of a season.
Luck found its way with the Hooters crew, when Elliott and Allison experienced trouble down the stretch. As a result of their problems in the final races combined with Kulwicki's strong performances, the overachiever went from fourth-place, 278 behind the points leader to the second position, just 30 markers from completing a true Cinderella story.
Andrews and Kulwicki embraced their position as the overlooked factor, labeling their car as the Ford "Underbird." With permission from the sanctioning body, "Special K" piloted one of the most epic cars in the sport's history, with the lower front air dam carrying a decal of Mighty Mouse typically where the "T-h" in Thunderbird is positioned.
Throughout the race, Kulwicki kept himself in contention, avoiding the traffic and mess that would cost title rival Allison past halfway in the race. Despite a valiant effort from the No. 28 Texaco Ford driver and team, it was not meant to be, as contact from the No. 4 Kodak Chevy of Ernie Irvan sent Allison into the inside retaining wall, crashing into the frontstretch wall that divided the racing surface from pit lane.
Although he tried to pull his car from the crash scene, Allison found that his title chances evaporated, with his machine breaking a tie rod. Dejected but taking the high road, the youngest member of the racing fraternity known as "The Alabama Gang" was optimistic that he'd have another crack at the title in 1993.
Petty and Martin experienced mechanical ailments, while Gant struggled around the top-15 in his Skoal Olds. Never for a moment did their legions of fans even believe that their favorites held a candle to the Ford trio, which was reduced a Blue Oval shootout in the final segments of the event.
It came down to a fuel mileage race, with the Elliott and Kulwicki camps playing "who'd blink first" as to who'd come down pit lane for a quick fuel service, or a "splash and go." With both drivers unable to make the finish without making a fast pit stop, things became tense, dramatic, and interesting for the Junior Johnson and AK Motorsports teams.
Andrews and Kulwicki realized that if they stayed out an additional lap in the closing stages of the race, as long as they at least finished second, the title was theirs. By virtue of leading the most laps, Elliott couldn't make additional headway into winning the title.
However, the risk of staying out another lap was running out of fuel, which would handily give the title to Elliott, the home state hero looking to please his family and friends at the 1.522-mile facility. Another obstacle facing Kulwicki was a clutch problem, in which his car had clutch problems.
Additional time in pit road would surely result in his Ford stalling, which meant losing about a football field a second to Elliott with any mistake down the stretch. As creative thinkers who often thought two moves ahead of the field, the No. 7 team decided to pit on lap 309, about 20 laps to the finish.
Behind the wheel, Kulwicki realized he needed to stay out an additional lap to obtain the five-point bonus for leading the most laps. Risking it, he passed pit lane on lap 309, finally heading toward his box on the next circuit.
Quickly, his crew refueled his car in about three seconds, with just enough gas to make the distance. Elliott's No. 11 Ford went down pit road four laps later, with a faster pit exit speed that resulted in his car taking the lead to the finish. Crossing the line first was Elliott's Budweiser car, which finished a comfortable 8.06 seconds ahead of Kulwicki's Hooters entry.
While winning the race, "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" realized that the true victor on Nov. 15, 1992 was the man who did it his way, otherwise known as Alan Kulwicki. Astonishing the NASCAR scene, crowd, and circuit, his title triumph was one of the most popular and inspiring campaigns ever.
In spite of all the odds, which basically pointed to the favorites like Junior Johnson's team, Richard Childress Racing, as well as Roush Racing, the team and driver that stood on top of the stock car world was the one that once housed a single car back in 1986. Through hard work and self-determination, the dream was realized and the 1992 championship was the biggest achievement by Kulwicki in his storied career.
Unfortunately, Kulwicki would only get to enjoy his banner season for four months, in which so much was realized, yet the fullness of this stubborn but valiant indie racer never got to flourish to its peak. His 1993 campaign was shaping up as another solid year, as he sat ninth in the points race, just 179 points behind leader Dale Earnhardt.
Completing an appearance for sponsor Hooters around the Knoxville, Tenn. area, Kulwicki boarded a plane headed for the Bristol area in anticipation for the 500-lap race he won the previous year. Despite the wintry conditions, all systems were go for the flight to head to the race's destination.
That plane never reached the airport near Bristol, crashing just before reaching Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville. Four passengers were killed in the accident, which included NASCAR's defending champion.
His death shook the racing world vividly, with fellow competitors realizing just how life can end at any given time. Kulwicki's transporter, which had made it to Bristol, Tenn., made a somber and slow lap around the 0.533-mile facility before departing back to the shop without its owner and star driver.
Clearly, the passing of Kulwicki shocked everyone at the track, including officials and NASCAR officials.
"I went to the garage today, and talked to the guys, as many as I could," said Gary Nelson, then NASCAR Cup Series Director. "It's like everybody wishes they could say goodbye."
Kulwicki's career and success was an impetus for some of the sport's veterans to start their teams, with Ricky Rudd bolting from Hendrick Motorsports following the '93 season to drive the No. 10 Tide Ford under the Rudd Performance Motorsports moniker.
Meanwhile, Geoff Bodine, who had bought the No. 7 team from the estate of Kulwicki, piloted that machine from 1994-'98, finding limited success in his driver/owner role.
While it may be a long time until we find a driver that's even a dusting of Alan Kulwicki's essence, it's certain that the drive, diligence, and desire to win will forever be extolled by drivers and teams who have the opportunity to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series on any given day.
Perhaps the best way to remember Kulwicki is by this quote, which he said in his 1992 championship banquet speech:
"If I've been an underdog or if I've been an example to a lot of the little guys out there, I'm proud to fill that role.
"There's a lot of short track drivers and guys in Busch Grand National racing...hopefully some of them will look at it and say, 'if he could do it, maybe I could do it too.'"
Maybe any grassroots racer out there, pursuing the dream, will get to be just like Alan Kulwicki, who was so tough, yet so true.
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