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Kulwickiís death still on minds at Bristol
Racing Commentary by Jack Flowers
March 28, 2003
This past weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway emotions were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

There were those who were remembering the 10th anniversary of the death of Alan Kulwicki.

And there were those who were trying to celebrate NASCARís 2,000th Winston Cup race.

In both cases, neither side did a very good job.

Itís difficult to believe itís been almost 10 years since NASCAR lost one of its brightest stars.

Less than five months after winning the Winston Cup championship, Kulwicki died in a plane crash shortly before he was to arrive at Tri-Cities Regional Airport. It was April 1, 1993, and Kulwickiís future appeared bright.

"Thereís no way it seems like 10 years," said Paul Andrews, Kulwickiís crew chief at the time, prior to the Food City 500. Andrews now is the crew chief for Jeff Burton and was working for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., when Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 a couple of years ago.

"It still hurts," Andrews said of Kulwicki. "Iíve lost family members and, to this day, that was the toughest loss in my life."

Kulwicki, the last owner-driver to capture the title, was looking forward to big things. But something went wrong on the plane heading to the Tri-Cities from Knoxville, Tenn., where he had attended an autograph session at Hooters, sponsor of his No. 7 Ford team. Kulwicki, Hooters executive Mark Brooks, sports marketing director Dan Duncan and pilot Charlie Campbell never made it. There were no survivors.

Hooters now sponsors owner-driver Brett Bodine in the No. 11 Ford Taurus. Bodine paid tribute to Kulwicki with and emblem on the hood of his car with the four names of each of those who lost their life. Brooks is the son of Hooters founder Bob Brooks.

Andrews wasnít on the plane because the teamís performance hadnít been up to par.

"Our pit stops were not where we thought we needed to be and we elected to stay back at the shop and do pit-stop practice," he said.

"We were going to get to Bristol about the same time. "It saved our life."

As word of the crash circulated, speculation began to spread. When it was learned that a driver might have been on the plane, the phone lines began to buzz. Dale Earnhardt was scheduled to land around the same time.

Wayne Estes, vice president for communications-events for Bristol Motor Speedway, was working for Ford as its Winston Cup publicist at the time. He was at the Garden Plaza Hotel in Johnson City, Tenn., waiting to watch the late sports show on television. Thatís when WCYB, the Bristol NBC affiliate, aired an alert saying a plane had crashed.

"My first thought was, ĎThursday night before practice starts; I know somebody on that airplane,í " Estes said. "But we didnít have any idea who it was."

When the 11 oíclock news came on, footage of the crash site was shown.

"I recognized the plane," Estes said.

Estes called Don Hawk, former general manager for Alan Kulwicki Racing.

"He said, ĎAlanís on that plane,í " Estes said. "He knew. It was the worst possible feeling I could have."

It was the worst possible feeling Peter Jellen, transport driver for the Kulwicki team, could have had, too.

"It just doesnít seem like 10 years, does it?" said Jellen, now the driver of the team hauler for Joe Gibbsí No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

"Ever wonder what Alan might be doing now? He would have been 48. I figure he would be the owner of a two-car team with drivers like Ryan Newman

"You listen to Newman on the radio and he and Alan thought just alike."

Both Kulwicki and Newman are college graduates with engineering degrees.

There wasnít as much certainty about NASCARís 2000th race being the 2000th.

Seems the historians and NASCAR donít agree.

Bob Latford, one of the sportsí professed historians, said he and several others met a year ago with NASCARís Jim Hunter and agreed on several things that were pending the approval of bill France Jr.

Latford agreed with [ital]Charlotte (N.C.) Observer[ital] motorsports writer David Poole that the Food City 500 on the afternoon of March 23 was to have been the 2000th. Evidently, NASCARís record books donít agree.

Why is it so hard for NASCAR, with all its resources, to remember if this was its 2,000th race or not Ö

Itís for certain this was the race marking the 10th anniversary of Alan Kulwickiís untimely passing.

Much has changed in the 10 years since Kulwickiís been gone. But, for plenty of people, Alan Kulwicki will never be forgotten.
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