In a car named Sirloin because it is one of the toughest cuts of beef, Alan Kulwicki won the 1986 Rookie of the Year honor in what was then known as the Winston Cup series. Six seasons later, he beat NASCAR’s elite to capture the 1992 title.
It was one of NASCAR’s most dramatic moments in a history filled with them. From near obscurity to the pinnacle of stock car racing, fiercely independent Kulwicki did it his way as an owner/driver in a sport that was rapidly turning its back on the privateer.
Barely 4 1/2 months later—25 years ago today, April 1—Kulwicki lost his life in plane crash returning to Bristol, Tenn. for the 1993 Food City 500. He was coming from a sponsor appearance in nearby Knoxville. Kulwicki was set to defend his 1992 victory in that race.
Everyone knew the sport was changing.
At the end of 1992, Richard Petty was due to retire. A young sprint car driver named Jeff Gordon would make his first Cup start. Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan and Davey Allison were taking the place of the “old guard.” And Kulwicki was at still the beginning of what proved to be a very promising career.
“No matter what else you have when you talk about Alan Kulwicki, is the speculation and the loss of potential,” NBC analyst Kyle Petty told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“How many more championships could there have been? What else could he have done? So many wins. So many poles. So many things were left laying on the table that we’ll never know.”
Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel details how Kulwicki packed up his single car and headed south to Charlotte, North Carolina, with nothing more than a dream of being involved in NASCAR’s top level.
What he brought with him was more than that little bit of machinery. The most important things were inside his head — an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a burning determination and an ability to see stock car racing not as it was, but as it would soon become.
As the sport was beginning to use data in a way that was unprecedented, the college-educated driver from outside of NASCAR’s mainstream was not encumbered by the old ways of thinking.
“I will say, Alan had a leg up on everybody on understanding what came out on that computer screen,” said Petty. “He was there when the door was open, and he was able to take advantage of those first few years when the sport headed in that direction.”
And it was likely his unique way of looking at things that won Kulwicki his only championship. With six races remaining, he trailed by 278 points and chipped away at that margin until he was among the drivers with a shot at the title in the final race.
In the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, Kulwicki won the championship by crunching the numbers in his head while circling the track at 180 mph. He stayed out during a long late-race, green flag run to score enough bonus points keep Elliott from overtaking him in the standings.
Kulwicki won the title in a Ford nicknamed the “Underbird” (instead of the Thunderbird he was driving) with a pit sign made out of an image of the cartoon hero Underdog.
The sport is left to speculate what might have happened if Kulwicki had not perished in that plane crash.
Would he have eventually succumbed to the pressure that pushed most other independent, driver/owner combinations out of the sport? Or would he have won many more races and several more championships?
About that same time, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs were establishing their teams. Kulwicki’s lone championship was wedged between four of seven earned by Dale Earnhardt.
Kulwicki’s career has been honored with four consecutive nominations to the Hall of Fame that includes a bid this year. And when he gets there, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” will play in the background, just as it did during the 1992 Winston Cup banquet.