Underbird: The Life of Alan D. Kulwicki

POSTING BY JB MADDAWG

Alan D. Kulwicki, 1954-1993

One doesn’t have to be a fan of NASCAR, or sports in general, to appreciate the tale of the man many knew as “Special K”.  It is indeed a tale of struggle, of success and ultimately, profound grief.  It is the tale of Alan Dennis Kulwicki.

To truly understand Kulwicki’s story, however, one must look back to a time in auto racing when things were different.  The sport was on the brink of a popularity breakthrough and with it, the huge amounts of money that can sometimes dictate a marked direction.  It was also a time when a man from Greenfield, Wisconsin with a degree in engineering would be not be welcomed with open arms into the mid 1980’s sport of NASCAR.  Alan Kulwicki would change all that.

Armed with a borrowed pick up truck and random parts, Kulwicki took his talents to North Carolina to take a stab at the big league of stock car racing.  Kulwicki had already constructed quite a reputation in local racing, and in fact, I can still recall my older brother returning from a visit to Hales Corners in Wisconsin, which he proclaimed he had “just seen the greatest driver in the Midwest…and he was some Polish guy”.  Little did any of us know, just how big of an impact that “Polish guy” would make on the sport of auto racing.

Kulwicki would instantly produce results among the best as he netted NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year Award in 1986, a season which would see car owner Bill Terry defund the  team, and Kulwicki would pick up the reigns out of his own pocket.  Personnel would be a problem, as Kulwicki’s controlling personality would clash with many in the sport.  In fact, the man who helped build current NASCAR racing great Jeff Gordon would only last six weeks working for Kulwicki.  Ray Evernham, now a famous crew chief and car owner described his early employer as “a genius”, but extremely hard to get along with because of Kulwicki’s control issues.  It would most certainly become a theme with the Wisconsin born driver.

It would only take Kulwicki six years to reach the pinnacle of the sport.  In 1992, with six races left in the season, Kulwicki would crash at Dover speedway and see his shot at the championship seemingly disappear falling 278 points behind the leader.  The next races, Kulwicki would finish no worse than fifth place and in the closest points margin in the sport’s history at the time, would win the Winston Cup Championship.

The sport in 1992 was beginning to be dominated by owners such as Hendricks and Roush, with multi-car teams and employees who seemed only to collect a paycheck waxing the autos.  Alan Kulwicki had one car, two engines and sheer determination.  Even the 1992 Ford Thunderbird Kulwicki drove to the championship was a testament to the driver’s view of himself,  when Kulwicki erased the “T” and “h” from the car’s air dam.  The Underbird would go on to become one of NASCAR’s most famous icons, just like the man who sat behind its wheel.  It was a feat that would have been impossible by today’s standards:  a man with hardly any money, building a team by himself to win the sport’s biggest prize as an owner/driver.  Sadly, Kulwicki’s reign would only last five short months.

On April 1st, 1993 a small plane carrying Kulwicki and three other men would crash in Tennessee killing all aboard.  Flying in for the spring race, Kulwicki was to arrive shortly after his car and semi-truck hauler at Bristol speedway, which would lead to one of the saddest scenes in NASCAR’s history.  Kulwicki’s car and transport, on a rainy Friday morning would exit Bristol speedway as a flagger would take the stand to wave the checkered flag for Alan one final time, the pit walls lined with rival teams and NASCAR officials.  Kulwicki was 38.

Many things have changed since Alan Kulwicki died to the sport of NASCAR.  Names have come and gone, tracks have been built and torn down and even the championship has changed it’s name.  The one thing that won’t change in the sport is the history, and the fans that won’t let that history be passed over.  Kulwicki was a “northerner”, and many at the top of the sport weren’t exactly keen on a Wisconsin native carrying of all things a brief case to the garage area for his job.  Kulwicki changed how teams and drivers viewed the sport.

It went beyond just strapping on a helmet and trying to fit sponsor names into a broadcast for the man.  Kulwicki injected true science into his craft, studying air flow, temperatures and engine performance in ways others had not.  He was not a student of the sport, he was a dean of the speedway, trading acceptance from his peers for knowledge.  That, is why NASCAR will always blanket the name of Kulwicki with one of Earnhardt.  Alan Kulwicki was simply not “one of the boys”.  He was simply a man who opened the door for the Gordons, the Stewarts, the Kenseths.  And he did it on his terms.

There is no telling what NASCAR would have looked like today if Kulwicki was still alive.  His presence in the sport could have very well shut down the Earnhardt dominance of the 1990’s, the rise of Jeff Gordon or perhaps even derailed the way some of the larger teams operated.  We, as fans, will simply never know.  There are still some in the sport that remember Alan, and you will spot them upon winning, turning in the opposite direction around the track which has become known as “the Polish victory lap”.

I was shocked to see someone online once wrote “if there isn’t an Earnhardt in NASCAR,  auto racing will crumble.”  Perhaps.  And perhaps the sport would crumble back to around 1992, to a time when the impossible was achieved by a man who few still speak of.  He was Alan D. Kulwicki.  And he never compromised.

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