Paul Andrews

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.”