When members of the NASCAR media – and let’s face it, its competitors and fans – first saw him, they paid little attention.
After all, he was just another young driver trying to make his way in NASCAR Cup Series racing on his own. He had his own team — a makeshift, voluntary band of pit crewmen, barely sufficient sponsorship and decidedly insufficient equipment.
They had seen this before: Some kid shows up for a couple of races, drives a few laps and then goes home – probably broke. It was a sad but oft-repeated scenario.
Yeah, they might have known that story well.
But they didn’t know Alan Kulwicki.
In 1986, his rookie year, he may have owned his own team, acquired minimal sponsorship from a steak house chain and put together a makeshift pit crew, but Kulwicki would not go away.
He qualified for 23 of 29 races, earned one top-five finish and three more among the top 10, posted nearly $100,000 in winnings and missed the top 20 in the standings by one point.
And he was named the Rookie of the Year.
It was time for the media to discover just who this Kulwicki guy was.
He was from Wisconsin and had a degree in engineering during a time when college graduates were almost unheard of in NASCAR – which made him an even stranger presence.
He gathered up everything he owned and came South to race, telling himself that since it was obvious he wasn’t a resident Southerner who could attract notice from week to week, he was going to have to do it on his own.
Obviously, the odds were against him.
But he defied them. After a successful 1986, he did even better in 1987 when he tripled his number of top-five and top-10 finishes, added three pole positions and posted $396,999 in earnings.
No longer was he unnoticed. Now there was no question he was in NASCAR to stay. He was competitive. Where he once had a makeshift roster of personnel and pit crewmen, instead he had dedicated professionals.
But there was also no question that, when it came to NASCAR competitors, he was, well, strange.
He showed up at every race carrying a briefcase, for crying out loud. He always seemed to be writing something down, lost in thought. He worked alongside his crew, inside and outside the car. He always seemed aloof, as if he had no interest in anything around him.
I was able to spend time with him away from the track. I learned he was a perfectionist. He examined every detail. When presented with issues, he studied them thoroughly and made no quick, rash decisions. He demanded the utmost effort from his employees but at the same time he never shied away from working alongside them.
He had a dream, and he was going to realize it with dedication, determination and hard work. But he was not, as some thought, a lonely, dour personality. He had a huge sense of humor, and I was fortunate to experience it.
As we grew closer, becoming the type of friends who do more than share a dinner but also share opinions and thoughts, I once said to him:
“Alan, in this world of NASCAR, you are truly unique.”
He replied with a smile: “I’m just a big pile of positive assets, aren’t I?”
One Halloween, my wife Margaret was looking for a costume. Kulwicki sent over one of his uniforms with a note: “This will look better on her than me!”
When he won his first race at Phoenix Raceway in 1988, which solidified his reputation as a bona fide, winning driver/owner, Kulwicki revealed his post-race “Polish Victory Lap,” in which he went around the track counterclockwise. Fans loved it.
He said it was something he had planned to do “after I won my first race. It would be something special for the fans, I think.”
He couldn’t know that it would outlive him.
After 1988 Kulwicki became “The Underdog” who drove an “Underbird” with Mighty Mouse as his team’s symbol. He was extremely popular among fans who appreciated and recognized who he was and how he had accomplished what he had.
Those in power recognized this, too. Junior Johnson tried to hire Kulwicki, saying that not only would he land a top-flight driver, “I would no longer need that guy they call a team or general manager.”
But Kulwicki believed he had a sponsor (which, in fact, was to back Johnson) and held his ground — even after that sponsor withdrew.
The summit of Kulwicki’s career was reached in 1992 when, as has been well recorded, he won the Winston Cup (now the Cup Series) championship in Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Hooters 500 on Nov. 15, the final race of the season.
It was typical Kulwicki. He didn’t win the championship with speed and brute strength. Rather, it was the cold, calculating strategy in his mind which allowed him to determine just how to lead at least one more lap than eventual race winner Bill Elliott.
That would be enough to win the title, and Kulwicki did by a mere 10 points.
His first year as champion was 1993.
On April 1 of that year, I was at my motel near Bristol Motor Speedway, site of the April 4 Food City 500 when I received a phone call.
I don’t remember who made the call. I do remember that I bolted from my bed, my motel and sped to the airport.
Friends of Kulwicki had gathered there, as had his crewmen who were escorted into a separate room.
Once there they were joined by a sheriff, whose shoes, I remember, were coated in mud.
Kulwicki had perished, along with three others, when their private plane crashed near the airport. The incident occurred after the aircraft suffered at least one iced engine.
At the speedway the next day I was in such a state that I do not remember much. I recall that on one day during the weekend, Kulwicki’s hauler made its lonely exit from the speedway as the entire pits and grandstands stood in respect and sorrow.
I don’t remember anything other than that.
Now, 30 years later, my friend is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, enshrined not for the number of races he won but, rather, how he won them and a championship.
He defied the odds. He beat others with more resources. He remained stalwart as he drove toward his goal.
In other words, as has been said of him often: He did it his way.
And, given today’s NASCAR environment of multicar teams, multi-sponsorships, multi-ownership investments and charters, one thing is certain:
We will never see the likes of Kulwicki again.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.
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Thank you for remembering this sad anniversary. Being from Wisconsin and a huge NASCAR fan in the 80s and 90s I was devastated by Kulwicki’s passing. Unfortunately this was no April Fools joke as I was awoken to the news late that Thursday night.The sport has changed so much. I couldn’t even find anything on NASCAR.com for the 30 year anniversary.
That was a really nice tribute. Wish I had been a fan in his day – I think he would have been my favorite driver.
Alan was a jerk.