Remembering Alan Kulwicki, a NASCAR Great Who Truly Did Things His Way

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2013

Alan Kulwicki, celebrating his 1992 Winston Cup championship, beating Bill Elliott (left) by 10 points. Kulwicki would be killed in a tragic plane crash less than 4 1/2 months later.
Alan Kulwicki, celebrating his 1992 Winston Cup championship, beating Bill Elliott (left) by 10 points. Kulwicki would be killed in a tragic plane crash less than 4 1/2 months later.

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of NASCAR driver Alan Kulwicki.

Kulwicki and three others were killed in a plane crash while on approach to Tri-Cities airport near Kingsport, Tenn. They were en route to that weekend's Winston Cup race at nearby Bristol Motor Speedway.

Kulwicki was an anomaly in the Winston Cup world. He was the first full-time driver in the sport to have graduated from a university (with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

He quickly showed race fans that the best drivers weren't necessarily Southern born and bred.

He was a "North'ner" in a sport that was based primarily in the southeastern part of the United States.

He left his native Milwaukee in 1984, having sold all of his worldly possessions, save for a pickup truck that hauled his self-built race car. Destination: Charlotte, N.C., the hub of NASCAR racing. The reason he sold his possessions was so that he would never turn back. It was make or break for Kulwicki.

Kulwicki made an immediate impression in numerous ways. First was his talent, followed by his ability to race closely and cleanly with opponents. He also garnered respect from his rivals for the way he was able to work on his race car, as many other drivers didn't know a spark plug from a seat belt.

Kulwicki came to NASCAR relatively late at the age of 30. Still, three years into his Winston Cup career, he won the first of five career races at Phoenix International Raceway in 1988. To celebrate, Kulwicki took his victory lap in the opposite direction, in what he called his "Polish Victory Lap" to celebrate his Polish heritage.

But the most endearing part of Kulwicki was his determination and drive. And that was never more on display than during the 1992 season, most notably in the season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

On the same day that Richard Petty drove in his last Cup race and Jeff Gordon drove in his first, Kulwicki did what most people thought impossible: He beat Bill Elliott by 10 points to win the championship, at that point the closest season finish in Cup history.

Kulwicki was on the top of the world, having achieved the biggest goal of his career: being a Winston Cup champion—something that he not only earned with his trademark hard work and perseverance, but an achievement that no one would ever be able to take away from him.

Sadly, Kulwicki didn't enjoy his reign as Cup champ for long—less than four-and-a-half months.

On a short, 30-minute commuter flight from Knoxville, Tenn., where he had made an appearance earlier that evening, to Kingsport, the small plane that carried Kulwicki, PR representative Mark Brooks (son of Bob Brooks, the president of the Hooters restaurant chain, Kulwicki's primary sponsor), Dan Duncan and pilot Charles Campbell crashed due to icing on the wings. No one survived.

Kulwicki left a legacy that will live on forever. He was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998 and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002, as well as the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.

A movement is slowly gaining momentum to see Kulwicki inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the next few years.

Highlights of Kulwicki's remarkable career will be part of a presentation that opens April 5 at the Milwaukee (Wisc.) County Historical Society and runs through the end of the year. For more information, check out KulwickiExperience.com.

A park is named in his honor in his native Greenfield, Wisc., a suburb of Milwaukee, and several of the short tracks that Kulwicki cut his teeth on in his home state continue to honor him with races named in his honor.

Kulwicki was just 38 when he died. Who knows what he would have continued to achieve had he not been taken so prematurely and abruptly.

Because he was known as a practical joker, when they first heard reports of his death, many people thought it was Alan pulling an April Fools joke. Sadly, this time, it was anything but a joke.

But one thing will forever be part of Kulwicki's legacy: He always dreamed of and worked all his life to beat every set of odds that he confronted. His goal was to one day become a NASCAR champion—and that's what he ultimately did.

While the way he left us was cruel and horrible, his countless friends and fans will forever be comforted knowing that Kulwicki left the sport he loved so much on top as its reigning champion.

Even though he enjoyed his reign for such a short time, one thing will always mark Kulwicki's career: his favorite song, which was played after Kulwicki won the championship, after he accepted the championship trophy and ring at the 1992 postseason banquet and also at his funeral.

That song: "My Way," by Frank Sinatra.

That same song came to be the perfect illustration of the way Kulwicki did things throughout his life, as he went from an outsider to one of NASCAR's greatest champions and inspirational stories the sport will ever know.

He may have left us 20 years ago Monday, but for longtime NASCAR fans, his legacy will never be forgotten.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski


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