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Kulwicki's legacy continues across NASCAR nation

By Ed Hinton | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted March 23, 2003

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NASCAR

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- When a decade-old Thunderbird, driven in reverse, circles Bristol Motor Speedway today, Brett Bodine assures, "There'll be some wet eyes here in the garage area."

This appearance of the late Alan Kulwicki's car will commemorate his trademark celebratory gesture, "my Polish victory lap," he called it, years before any driver thought of doing "doughnuts," or anything special at all, on the way to Victory Lane.

Dour, brilliant, barely knowable, Kulwicki had just begun turning NASCAR on its ear when he died, a passenger in a private plane that crashed near here on the evening of April 1, 1993, in transit to a race.

His reign as Winston Cup champion lasted just four months, but it obliterated much tradition.

Had he lived, "The record books would be different now," says Dale Jarrett, one of a handful of drivers who claim even an inkling of understanding of the eccentric engineer from Greenfield, Wis. "He would have been there -- ahead of a lot of the drivers out here."

"The man was a genius -- I mean that literally, in every sense of the word," says team owner Ray Evernham, who first came into NASCAR to work for Kulwicki but quit quickly, in 1992, due to the "cut-to-the-bone" manner of the boss. "He could figure fuel mileage, tire stagger, anything, while he was driving the race car. He was a very calculating individual. He had an unbelievable mind and memory."

Evernham went on to become the crew chief who launched Jeff Gordon to stardom and who revolutionized the way NASCAR teams are run -- with scientific methodology inspired by Kulwicki.

NASCAR has evolved from a realm of self-taught mechanics and Carolina-bred drivers to one dominated by engineers and drivers from all parts of the nation. Kulwicki was the first non-Southerner to win the Winston Cup.

The trend Kulwicki began is personified here, today, on the pole for the Food City 500 in Ryan Newman, 25, also an engineer-driver. Even at age 15, in high school in South Bend, Ind., Newman took the instant legend of Kulwicki as an inspiration, a reason for certainty "that [supplementing driving skills with engineering knowledge] was a defined way to go."

But unlike Newman, who drives for the Penske Racing empire, Kulwicki steadfastly refused to depend on anyone else for technology or financing. He owned his own team, and ran it -- micro-managed it -- from behind the wheel.

He wouldn't have it any other way. In 1991, he turned down an offer to drive for the most successful car owner of the time, the legendary moonshine runner-turned-racer Junior Johnson.

"Ninety percent of us out here would have jumped at that," Jarrett recalls. "Alan told me, 'I've got some things I need to look at.' I don't know that he was asking my opinion, but we talked about it. He could have set himself financially for a long time. But I think the challenge of continuing to do it on his own meant more to him than financial security."

The very next season, Kulwicki beat Johnson's driver, Bill Elliott, for the season championship by a record-narrow 10 points. Even though Elliott won the season-ending race at Atlanta, Kulwicki, doing the arithmetic as he drove, tucked contentedly behind Elliott for second place and a mathematical lock on the title.

Davey Allison, driving for the powerful Robert Yates racing team, had gone into that '92 finale as the points leader but was caught up in an early wreck.

"Alan beat those people [Johnson and Yates, over the duration of a season] on one-tenth of the money they had," Evernham recalls.

"He certainly was a genius, not only mechanically, but in his business sense and how to motivate people," Bodine says.

But Kulwicki's kind of motivation took ultra-thick skin: "His personality paid for [his genius]," Evernham says. "He was very impatient, very straightforward, very cut-to-the-bone."

Among drivers, "He was a difficult guy to get to know," says Gordon, who was a rookie the spring Kulwicki died and has won four championships and 61 races since. "I talked with him a couple of times . . . I bet we spoke five words."

A bachelor, and quietly a ladies' man, Kulwicki carried in his wallet a slip of paper on which he'd written his requirements for qualities in a wife. Before and after dates, he'd review the list. No one ever measured up.

Kulwicki, 38 when he died, would have been among NASCAR's old-guard drivers by now. Bodine wonders if Kulwicki's individualism might have overridden his scientific knowledge and made him resist the influx of team engineers.

"I don't know whether he'd have accepted outside help," Bodine says, "as freely as some of today's drivers and crew chiefs have to."

But Jarrett believes Kulwicki would have thrived on all the change: "He never professed to know everything. As smart as he was, he was always ready to learn."

Where some veteran drivers have difficulty understanding team engineers now, "Alan would understand exactly what they're talking about," Jarrett says.

And beyond the science, "He was an excellent driver. He had as good a feel for a car as anybody who's been around here."

Though Kulwicki died with only five Cup wins, "He could have won plenty," Jarrett says. "He had as good a feel for a car as anybody who's been around here. He could have won plenty. I think he would have won multiple championships. He was capable of being a dominant force.

"He was ahead of his time, so he would have fit in for a long time to come," Jarrett says, then recollects that evening nearly 10 years ago.

"I remember lying in my hotel room, seeing the report on local TV that a plane had crashed. Then they came back with word that Alan Kulwicki might have been on board. I remember that sick feeling. I wanted more information. I wanted it not to be true. I'd lost a friend."

Years earlier, at a Busch race in Milwaukee, it was Jarrett whom Kulwicki told of his plan to migrate from Wisconsin into what was then a Southern sport.

"I had tremendous admiration for him because of what he did: He picked up, left home, came South, did things his way, and made it work. He became the ultimate champion."

Ed Hinton can be reached at ehinton@tribune.com.

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