NASCAR

March 29, 2003
Alan Kulwicki: His Way

By Larry Manch
Racing News Online

This article originally ran on March 25, 2002.

Every time I see a race driver run a victory lap the wrong way, I can't help but think of the man from Wisconsin who gave us what he called 'the Polish Victory lap.' It doesn't happen very much anymore, but every so often, someone celebrates a race win by driving around the track in the wrong direction just like the late Alan Kulwicki.

Kulwicki, of course, made Hooters more famous if that is possible. I come from the north where 'hooters' is merely a descriptive phrase. I didn't even know it was the name of a restaurant chain until they began sponsoring the #7 Ford Thunderbird. He was an experienced racer before he ever saw North Carolina, beginning on the short tracks of Wisconsin and other mid-western states before running in the ASA series. But for guys like Kulwicki, the Winston Cup series was the only series worth running in. To be the champion of Nascar was the goal he set for himself.

Alan Kulwicki was a unique man in many ways, quite different than most of his competitors. In the mid-eighties when he sold most of his belongings and moved to Charlotte in an old Ford truck, there were few northerners in Nascar's premier division. There were even fewer college graduates, but being different didn't stop him from pursuing his dream. His dream was to win the Winston Cup, and he set out to get what he wanted. Most people would not have the nerve to sell everything and move thousands of miles to attempt a career where the odds of success are staggering.

He ran his first race in 1985 at Richmond, driving for Bill Terry. The following year was his first full season; they operated on a small budget--one car, two engines and two crewmembers. The lack of money forced the meticulous Kulwicki to learn the technique of saving his equipment. The big money teams don't worry so much about such things, but a low budget operations' existence depends on bringing the car home in one piece every week. Kulwicki's mechanical engineering background helped him become a good chassis man, leading to four top ten finishes and Rookie of the year honors.

Kulwicki bought the team from Terry in 1987, beginning his first year as owner/driver. He finished an amazing fifteenth in points that year; and that's when the sponsors took notice of the man from the north. Zerex Antifreeze signed on as primary sponsor, and Kulwicki hired crew chief Paul Andrews before the 1988 season. Hopes ran high at AK Racing, but little did they know that their rise to the championship had begun in earnest.

Kulwicki won his first Cup race at Phoenix on November 6, 1988, the first of five victory lane appearances in his short career. After taking the checkered flag, Alan turned the car around and drove his victory lap the wrong way--to the chagrin of Nascar officials. It took another year for win number two--October 21 at Rockingham, but things were going well for AK Racing.

The team suffered a setback in 1990 when Zerex pulled out, leaving the team with questionable status. Kulwicki had several job offers, but turned them down--he was still convinced that his way was the right way. They began the 1991 season with a one-race sponsorship from the Army--the #7 Ford was one of four cars sponsored by the US military in support of our troops in the Persian Gulf.

Once the Army camouflage came off the car, the team ran at Richmond and Rockingham without sponsorship. They may have been hurting for help, but they were still competitive--Kulwicki won the pole at Atlanta in March. Hooters agreed to sponsor Kulwicki after their own driver failed to make the race, and they stuck with the #7 car throughout the season. Five months later, Kulwicki won at Bristol and again, the future of AK Racing looked bright.

Nineteen ninety-two would prove to be the season of dreams for the hard working owner/driver. His careful planning and never-ending desire to win paid off early that year when Kulwicki won again at Bristol in the sixth race on April 4. A little over two months later, he won at Pocono in what would prove to be his final race win. By midsummer, the Hooters Ford was in contention for the Winston Cup, but by Martinsville in late September, he had fallen to 278 points behind Davey Allison and Bill Elliott. The team fought back, climbing to second in the points, but a win by Allison at the next to last race at Phoenix put Kulwicki thirty points behind the Texaco driver, and only ten ahead of Elliott.

When the tour reached Atlanta on November 15, at least six drivers still had a chance at the championship, including Kulwicki, Elliott, Allison and Harry Gant. (The race was notable also as Richard Petty's final drive, and the first Cup start by a young kid named Jeff Gordon.)

Late in the race, Allison tangled with Ernie Irvan, damaging the car and ending the Alabama driver's hopes at the Cup. Had Allison won the race, the championship would have been his, but after the wreck, it left Elliott and Kulwicki to decide the outcome. Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki had led one more lap than his competitor, earning five bonus points--enough to clinch the championship. Never was there a sweeter Polish victory lap as the Hooters Ford 'Underbird' circled Atlanta Motor Speedway--the underdog had won the Winston Cup.

A few weeks later, Nascar honored its newest champion, playing the Frank Sinatra song 'My Way' while the audience watched the video tribute to Kulwicki. These guys always look out of place and uncomfortable in tuxedos at the Waldorf in New York, but Alan Kulwicki had come too far to look like anything but the champion that he was.

"I want to be as good a champion as I can be, in case the chance never happens again," he told the audience. Tragically, he would have less than four months to enjoy his newfound celebrity. Alan Kulwicki died in the crash of the Hooters corporate jet enroute to a track where he had enjoyed success--Bristol Motor Speedway, on April 1, 1993.

A few days later, the Hooters hauler circled the track alone as a capacity crowd looked on in silence. His career had been all too short, spanning just seven years. All told, Kulwicki ran 207 Cup races, with 24 poles, 75 top tens and five wins from 1985 to 1992.

In the end, Kulwicki had proved that his way was, in fact, the right way.

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