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Waid’s World: Alan Kulwicki’s 1st Big Step to Fame Came at Phoenix in 1988

The 1988 NASCAR Cup Series season has been logged into stock car racing history as significant for several reasons.

It was the year of the Tire Wars, the intense competition between Goodyear and upstart Hoosier for supremacy in NASCAR.

Teams were challenged to determine which tire to use, where to use it and whether to change brands during a race.

Sometimes the proper strategy resulted in victory. Sometimes the improper strategy resulted in mangled metal or worse. Either way, the entire situation proved expensive and often very frustrating.

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There was a changing of the guard, which saw a handful of successful, well-known drivers who competed for over 30 years decide the time was right for retirement.

Three of them, Bobby Allison, Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough, were past Cup champions. Allison’s career effectively ended in a frightening crash at Pocono Raceway in the summer of 1987.

Parsons began a television career that ultimately made him one of the best, and most popular, in the industry.

Yarborough, who at the time held the NASCAR record of three consecutive championships with team owner Junior Johnson, started his own team.

As did Buddy Baker, who was widely recognized as a lead-footed master of NASCAR’s superspeedways.

In 1988, the absence of such established, familiar stars led to speculation as to who would replace them.

Others suggested they were irreplicable – which, in NASCAR, has never been the case. One generation of stars has always been replaced by another.

This is how it was in 1988, although one competitor was not recognized as a rising star until the end of the year.

By 1988, Alan Kulwicki, a Wisconsin native who traveled South to try his hand in NASCAR after several successful campaigns on the short tracks of the Midwest, was already established in NASCAR.

He was the Rookie of the Year in 1986 and maintained his own shop in Concord, N.C. Since I lived nearby, I visited his facility often.

“Small” doesn’t describe it. “Tiny” is more like it. It was one of the smallest edifices in a Concord industrial park. It could house one car only. Overall, it might have had three rooms – one of which was his office, which came complete with a princess phone.

Kulwicki was bucking the odds. He owned, operated and drove for his own team. He obviously had limited sponsorship. There was no way he could compete against the larger, more heavily financed teams that easily outstripped him in equipment, pieces and personnel.

But there was something about Kulwicki. He was determined to do it his way. To help achieve that he was not a belligerent, demanding boss. He was inspirational. He led by example.

His small crew obviously believed in him. As many times as I visited, not once did I see them derelict in their duties. They didn’t perform their tasks like workers with no pride. Rather, they were diligent. No one walked from job to job. He walked quickly.

“Here’s the way I look at it,” Kulwicki said one day after he put down the book of inspirational messages he read every day. “If I can get them to believe in what I’m doing – make that what we’re doing – there’s no need to do anything more than direct them then let them do their jobs. They will do what it takes.”

Make no mistake, Kulwicki could be difficult, especially if things didn’t go as he wished. An engineer, he was obviously intelligent, but he was also a perfectionist, something to which some early, short-time employees could attest.

As determined as Kulwicki was, his on-track production certainly didn’t indicate he would establish a successful career. He went winless through 1987 and his career record showed just three top-five finishes and nine top 10s. His best average finish was 18.2 and he finished 15th in the point standings.

It wasn’t much better in 1988. As the season wound to a close, with only two races left, Kulwicki’s record was only slightly better, with six finishes in the top five and eight in the top 10.

Knowing he was simply keeping his head above water, I asked Kulwicki what he might do if he wasn’t successful as a driver-owner.

“I do not plan on being unsuccessful,” he said.

Then came the Checker 500, the inaugural Cup race at Phoenix Raceway, the event that sparked Kulwicki’s march to stardom – and more.

No one could have predicted Kulwicki would win the first race of his career. Given his season statistics, why would anyone?

Kulwicki ran up front all day and then caught a huge break when leader Ricky Rudd suffered engine failure with 16 laps to go.

Kulwicki inherited the lead and easily held off Terry Labonte to win by 18.5 seconds.

“When Ricky had his problems, I knew I had my chance,” he said. “It’s been a long road and a lot of hard work to get here.”

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After he took the checkered flag, Kulwicki reversed course and took a victory lap going clockwise. He called it “The Polish Victory Lap”; the crowd heartily approved.

“I told you I was going to do that,” Kulwicki later said to me in the press box.

“Hell, I didn’t think you were serious,” I said.

After 1988, Kulwicki won four more times and established his self-owned team as a contender, if not a winner, against the powerhouse organizations.

In 1992, as NASCAR history dutifully recorded, Kulwicki used strategy and his mathematical acumen to win the Cup championship by 10 points over season finale race winner Bill Elliott.

It was the epitome of Kulwicki’s career; a career which many doubted would last no more than a couple of seasons, much less advance to a championship.

Kulwicki died in an airplane crash near Bristol on April 1, 1993, and he was honored with enshrinement in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019.

His major step toward the hall came at Phoenix in the fateful year of 1988.

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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Kevin in SoCal


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