Alan Kulwicki: From ‘Underbird’ to NASCAR Hall of Famer

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Sometime in 1984 or 1985, Mike Joy, then with Motor Racing Network, was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to cover an ASA race at the Milwaukee Mile.

Among those competing was Alan Kulwicki, who was driving for himself, as he did for much of his racing career.

Joy introduced himself to the young man who grew up just over 10 miles southwest of the track in Greenfield.

Kulwicki told him no introduction was needed.

“I know who you are,” Joy recalls Kulwicki saying. “I listen to you every weekend. I’m going to be down there someday and I’m going to race NASCAR.”

On Wednesday, Kulwicki, who drove the famed “Underbird” to the 1992 Cup title, was the last person announced to the 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The crew chief

Paul Andrews had never attended a Hall of Fame class announcement even though Kulwicki had been nominated the past three years

Andrews, who was Kulwicki’s crew chief for all five of his Cup wins and his 1992 title, was nervous when the first four inductees were revealed and Kulwicki’s name hadn’t been called.

Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Davey Allison all preceded Andrews’ driver and boss.

“Definitely nervous,” Andrews told NBC Sports. “Especially when they put Davey in, because their histories are very similar.”

Both Kulwicki’s and Allison’s careers and lives were tragically cut short 103 days apart 25 years ago.

Kulwicki perished April 1 when his plane crashed in a field in Northeast Tennessee, six miles west of Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Cup Series competed that weekend. He was 38.

Allison followed July 13, dying from injuries he sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison, who was flying the helicopter, was 32.

Andrews has a lot of happy memories from their career together, including their championship triumph at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 over Bill Elliott, and Kulwicki’s first Cup win at ISM Raceway in 1988.

But a tearful Andrews said his lasting memory of his time with Kulwicki will be losing him after just five races in 1993.

“It’s something I can’t get out of my heart,” Andrews said.

Andrews, who went on to win Cup races with Jeremy Mayfield, Steve Park and Geoffrey Bodine, hopes people will learn what was in Kulwicki’s heart with his Hall of Fame induction.

“Determination,” Andrews said. “(And) believing in his people and believing in his own talent.”

The competitor

When it came to the ASA racing circuit in the Midwest, Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin were two “fairly good-sized fish in a small pond,” says Martin.

“There wasn’t room for two big fish,” continued the 2017 Hall of Fame inductee. “We had to race pretty hard.”

Martin hesitates to say he and Kulwicki “were best friends. We were fierce competitors that got along OK.”

Martin raced his way into the Cup Series in 1981 before competing full-time in 1982.

During that season, Martin got a call from Kulwicki, who was still racing back home in Wisconsin.

Kulwicki planned to attend the World 600 race weekend in hopes of meeting people who could further his career.

Being fierce competitors didn’t bar Martin from being hospitable. He invited the aspiring NASCAR driver to stay at his place.

“We were close enough that he did that,” Martin said.

No matter his feelings toward Kulwicki, Martin said it would have been “painful” to see him and Allison not elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

“I’m glad I wasn’t on the voting panel,” Martin said. “This is probably in my eyes, this was one of the toughest years ever. I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with it.”

Unlike Allison, Kulwicki had a Cup title on his record. One that Martin said was “more outstanding” than anything Kulwicki accomplished in their little ASA pond.

Not long after his encounter with Joy, Kulwicki moved to North Carolina in 1985 and made his Cup debut on Sept. 8 at Richmond Raceway driving for someone else.

That arrangement didn’t take.

Six years later, Kulwicki was crowned the 1992 Cup Series champion, becoming the last driver-owner to accomplish the feat as NASCAR became a world of highly funded multi-car teams. He did it driving the No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird, which was nicknamed the “Underbird.”

“What he achieved in NASCAR will never be done again,” said Martin, who finished sixth to Kulwicki in 1992. “It was never done before and will never be done again. It was absolutely astonishing. Period.”

 

NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood passes away

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Wood Brothers Racing patriarch Glen Wood, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012, died Friday. He was 93.

The team announced his passing Friday morning on social media.

Wood was a link to NASCAR’s early years.

A former driver – he won four times at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C. – Glen Wood founded the Wood Brothers Racing team with brothers Leonard and Delano. In Wood’s first win at Bowman Gray Stadium in April 1960, he beat a field that included former champions Richard Petty, Rex White, Ned Jarrett and Lee Petty. Wood’s history also includes seeing Tim Flock race with a monkey and having Ralph Earnhardt drive convertible and sportsman cars for the team.

HIs racing career nearly ended as soon as it started. Wood and a friend paid $50 for a 1938 Ford coupe to go racing. The Stuart, Virginia, native ran his first race at a track near Martinsville. During the heat race, his car was hit and bent the rear-end housing. After the race, Wood and his friend hooked the race car to the vehicle they were driving and headed home.

But on the trip, the axle eventually broke and the damage caused fuel, which was spilling, to ignite and engulf the back of the race car.

“Every once in a while one of them (gas cans) would blow up, and we would be afraid to get close to it because of that,” Wood recalled in a 2011 interview. “Finally we got it unhooked and got the car away from (the one pulling it) and let it burn because we couldn’t do anything about it.”

They salvaged the engine and repaired the car. A few weeks later, Wood was back racing.

While Leonard is often credited as the father of the modern pit stop, Glen was equally as responsible. The two developed a communication and strategy plan that was one of the best in NASCAR for several decades.

Wood Brothers Racing, which has 99 Cup victories, remains the oldest continuous racing team in NASCAR. Among the drivers that have raced for the team are Hall of Famers David Pearson, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Joe Weatherly, Fred Lorenzen, Cale Yarborough, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott.

Born on July 18, 1925, Glen retired as a driver at the age of 39, assuming full-time duties as the team’s chief administrator, a role that he handled for nearly 30 years before relegating the role to sons Eddie and Len.

Through the years, Wood’s name mysteriously changed. HIs birth certificate lists his first name as Glenn but somewhere along the way the last letter was dropped.

Wood received the colorful nickname of “Wood Chopper” early on for how he used to cut timber at a Virginia sawmill. But when Glen started racing, that nickname followed him and became somewhat of a calling card for his winning ways.

“When he pulled into a racetrack and the announcer would say, ‘Here comes the Wood Chopper from Stuart, Virginia,’ you knew you had a challenger that night,” said Jarrett, a fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer, of Glen Wood in a 2012 NASCAR Hall video of Glen Wood’s career. “Glen Wood, he was the master.”

Kyle Petty, who drove for the Wood Brothers during his career, was a Hall of Fame voter when the group discussed who to induct in the 2012 class. Behind the closed doors, Petty made an impassioned speech for the voters to select Wood for induction.

“I think people forget the breadth of somebody’s career sometimes when it spans as long as his,” Kyle Petty said that day in 2011.

Said Edsel B. Ford II, member of the Board of Directors for Ford Motor Company, of Wood’s passing:

“This is a difficult day for all of us at Ford Motor Company. Glen Wood was the founding patriarch of the oldest continuously operating NASCAR Cup Series team and we consider Wood Brothers Racing a part of our family, the Ford Family. The Wood Brothers race team, by any measure, has been one of the most successful racing operations in the history of NASCAR. Most importantly for our company, Glen and his family have remained loyal to Ford throughout their 69-year history.

“Glen was an innovator who, along with his family, changed the sport itself.  But, more importantly, he was a true Southern gentleman who was quick with a smile and a handshake and he was a man of his word.   I will cherish the memories of our chats in the NASCAR garage, at their race shop in Mooresville or the racing museum in Stuart.  My most memorable moment with Glen was with he and his family in the #21 pit box watching Trevor Bayne win the 2011 Daytona 500 and the celebration that followed in victory lane.”

Jerry Bonkowski contributed to this report

Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Christopher Bell wins Chili Bowl preliminary race

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Justin Allgaier placed 13th in the 24-car field.

Even though he is in position to win a third consecutive Chili Bowl title, Bell says he has work to do.

“I kind of felt rusty tonight,” Bell said in the press conference afterward. “I don’t know why that was. … The longer you’re on top, the harder it is to stay there and the easier it is to lose. I’m going to do my best to try to figure out why I didn’t feel as good as I normally do and why I didn’t run as good of a race as I normally do.”

Golobic noted the challenges of racing against Bell.

“It’s kind of frustrating to race with Christopher sometimes, he’s just so darn good,” Golobic said in the press conference. “I think he’s the best there is hands down right now in a midget.”

Karsyn Elledge, daughter of JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller, was collected in an incident in her B main and finished 11th. She won her heat earlier in the evening, finishing ahead of Golobic.

MORE: Thursday night race results

MORE: Wednesday night race results

MORE: Tuesday night race results

MORE: Monday night race results

 

NASCAR Heat Pro League draft moved to March

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Qualifications for the NASCAR Heat Pro League ended earlier this week, but the 100 players hoping to be drafted by one of the NASCAR teams participating will have to wait a little bit longer.

The draft, originally scheduled for February, has been moved back to March. The rescheduling was noted in the latest episode of the NASCAR Heat Pro League web series, which you can watch above.

The league will feature 16 races with up to 16 teams and 32 drivers. Each team will be owned and operated by a NASCAR race team. Each team will field two drivers, one competing on Xbox One and the other on a PlayStation 4.

With the end of qualifications, the top 100 players will get to participate in “Showcase Races.”

The 100 players will consist of the 50 best XBox One players, and the 50 best PlayStation 4 players.

Players will receive an email in the coming weeks informing them if they are eligible for the showcase. Eligible players will then have to fill out paperwork, go through an interview and a background check before having full eligibility for the showcase.

The move of the draft date is intended to allow for more races and to give teams more time to make their decisions.