Eleven years ago today we lost what was the example of the sport’s future. En route to Bristol, Alan Kulwicki’s plan suffered a severe malfunction and went down just miles from where it was scheduled to land. I am a proud Wisconsinite and this story is very near and dear to my heart, so I will not use any clever catch phrases or offer my opinion of anything. This is a story of my experience in and around Alan Kulwicki’s life, and tragic death.
I was eight years old. My mom and I were living with my uncle…”Unc” if you’ve read my story about my family. Unc woke me up at the normal time and told me that Alan had been killed. I thought it was a very crude April Fool’s joke and got up to get ready for school. I went into the living room to find my mom crying as she knelt in front of the T.V. where they were reporting on the story. For an eight year old, it was a little hard to understand, but as a race fan, even back then, I just could not believe it. I don’t think I went to school that day, and if I did I don’t remember much about it. All I could think about was Alan and how much my family would join the racing world in mourning.
At Bluemel’s Floral Shoppe in Greenfield, they had posted on their sign, “We Miss You Alan!” It was just too tragic to be put into words. My mom and her brother, as well as my father were friends of Alan’s when he raced here, and he’d invited my mom’s brother to go south with him, but he never did. My mom wrenched for him at Slinger, and met him at Hales Corners Speedway, my local dirt track. As a side note, the night they met was the night Wally Jors died, who was a legend at Hales. Long-time Wisconsin race fans will know who he was. Anyways, I never got to meet him, but when he packed up to head south, he rubbed my mom’s tummy and said good-bye to me in the womb. That’s about as close as I ever got to him.
I remember when he won the championship. Oh my God that was something. The whole state just went nuts, as we did this past year for Matt. It was just something that could only be summed up with a pump of the fist and a smile on your face. My dad took me to Greenfield High School for Alan Kulwicki Day, where Alan made an appearance and chatted with the legion of people who had come to pay homage to him. In true Alan Kulwicki fashion, the first words he spoke at that event were, “Wow, I thought at this time it’d be Bill Elliott up here.” That is the only time I think in history that the name Bill Elliott was spoken, only to be followed by more boo’s than you can imagine! After he talked to the crowd, he was going to sign autographs. My mom had given me an envelope with Kool-Aid packets in it, because it was his favorite drink. She bought seven of them for his car number, attached a quick note saying who they were from and who the little boy was that gave them to him. The line was outrageous and my dad told me we’d never get to meet him because he’d only be there until a certain amount of time. I handed the envelope to a PR guy and he gave it to Alan right away. Alan read the note, looked up at me, smiled real big and gave me a “thumbs up” sign. I gave him one back, too. As it turned out, Alan stayed until every single person met him. Now, I wish we would have stayed. Who would have thought that just a few months later, Alan would return to Greenfield for all of us to say our good-byes.
I was taken out of school early the day of Alan’s funeral. I remember getting weird looks for wearing a suit at school, but I didn’t care. My mom and I met both of my uncles, my dad and a few other friends of Alan’s at B.B. Rubbles, a racing bar just down the road from the funeral home. We met there and walked over because traffic was just insane around the funeral home. A lot of racing personalities were there, but we’d all been instructed that absolutely no autographs were to be asked for. I think it went without saying. Gladly, no one was asked to leave due to that. But inside you’d swear it was a driver’s meeting because almost every driver was there. I felt weird because I was the only kid there. We walked up to Alan’s coffin and, crying, I asked my mom why we can’t see him. What a helluva question to ask your mom, huh? Try explaining that one! But she did to the best of her ability, through the sobs, and we then moved on to pay our respects to Gerry and the rest of Alan’s family.
So many drivers were there, not only NASCAR but local guys too that raced with him, and pitted for him. Alan hated it when people called him “Alan Wrench”, after the said wrench. When he’d get mad, there’d be one guy who used to give him crap about that name and boy, the tempers flared then! This guy was at the funeral, came up to me mom and through the tears said, “Eh good ol’ Alan Wrench.” The emotion was just something else. Meeting the drivers was kind of a neat experience, but I wish the circumstances had been different. I remember that Mark Martin sat and talked with me about life in general…what grade I was in, my name, my teacher’s name, was she nice, etc. He then asked who my favorite driver was. I said Alan was and we both started crying a little bit. Kyle Petty was there and I said hello to him. Davey Allison was there and I told him that I though his snakeskin boots he wore were really cool. He laughed and knelt down to my level and told me, “Well, when I win a championship like Alan, I’ll buy you a pair, ok?” God, who would have thought he’d be next. Several other drivers and personalities were there such as Bret Bodine and his wife, Mike Joy, Alan’s crew including Paul Andrews, but Alan’s good friend Rusty Wallace wasn’t there. He just couldn’t, which was understandable.
On the way out, we met Benny Parsons. He tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned around my mom asked me, “Hey Joey, who is that?” To which I said, “Hey! It’s Buffet Benny!” He glowed. Not blushed, glowed. He just couldn’t believe that someone my age would remember something like that, and it made the whole ordeal a little easier for him in some way. Mike Joy gave the eulogy and it was a really tough service. After that, we left and went about our lives. I grew up, my mom grew up, we all grew up. But we still miss Alan, as I’m sure most of you do, too.
Alan Kulwicki represented the past, present, and future of our great sport. I hope at Texas something is said to honor Alan’s memory. The sport may be evolving but it cannot forget the past. Having the Texas winner forget donuts, forget John Force burnouts, and whip that sucker the wrong way and do a Polish Victory Lap would be surreal. It would be hard to hold up seven fingers on lap seven, as we did for Earnhardt with three fingers on lap 3. Let’s keep Alan in our hearts and when we look up at the big race track in the sky, let’s salute Neil and Davey and Dale and all the others, and also give a special hello to “Good ol’ Alan Wrench.” May he rest in peace.
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