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Underbird serves as rolling memorial

By Ryan Smithson April 1, 2003
11:08 AM EST (1608 GMT)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It started out as an innocent hobby.

It became an obsession.

  Larry Bean
Larry Bean

Larry Bean, a 57-year-old retired Massachusetts State Trooper and avid Winston Cup fan, had always restored classic cars as a hobby.

But Bean didn't stop at restoring 1950s-era Thunderbirds. He wanted to restore a Winston Cup car, and in 1993, one became available after Geoffrey Bodine purchased Alan Kulwicki Racing.

Bodine, who bought AKR after Kulwicki's death in April 1993, was in the process of updating the team's fleet of Ford Thunderbirds.

As a result, a four-year-old chassis -- designated AKR-008 -- went up for sale. Bean bought it and began restoring the car.

But this just wasn't any ordinary Ford Thunderbird. This was the car Kulwicki drove at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Nov. 16, 1992, when he beat Bill Elliott and Davey Allison for the Winston Cup title.

  The document proving the car's authenticity
The document proving the car's authenticity

Kulwicki had nicknamed that particular car the "Underbird," a clever moniker that honored his underfunded, self-owned operation, which was a decided underdog to the powerful teams of Junior Johnson (Elliott) and Robert Yates (Allison).

Bean went to work restoring the car with the help of former Busch Series driver Dave Rezendes, who allowed Bean to use shop space to store the machine.

The car, now fully restored, sits in the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

To Bean, having the car in Mooresville, N.C. -- 20 miles from the car's birthplace in Concord -- is a fitting continuation of Kulwicki's memory.

"I am very happy it's there," Bean said. "It'll really help our goal to keep Alan's memory alive."

Bean has had offers to buy the car -- but he has rejected them, mainly because they involved using the car in classic auto races. Bean prefers that the car remain in a museum-type environment, sale or no sale.

Bean can't even begin to estimate what it has cost to restore the car -- not that he wants to. The restoration was so extensive that he even created a website, underbird.com, to document the entire process.

  Bean took delivery of the chassis three months after it had been crashed at Dover.
Bean took delivery of the chassis three months after it had been crashed at Dover.

"(It cost) a wad of money," said Bean, who sold some of his classic car collection to pay for the Underbird's restoration. "At a point I stopped keeping track. I hate to think about what it really cost."

The biggest expense was the engine. Bean, with the help of AKR employees, actually located the engine block that was used in the car when Kulwicki won the title.

Bean even found the original heads that were used on the car's engine and used those to complete the restoration. Jeff Buice, one of Kulwicki's body men, applied decals to the car once the bodywork was complete.

Once the car was finished, several of Kulwicki's employees wandered over to Rezendes' shop to take a look.

"I think they were happy to see it," Bean said. "It was an experience. They were all impressed. There might have been a couple of them who had emotion."

Bean officially has the car for sale but is not in any hurry to complete a deal. For now, he is content to have it in the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

If Bean does sell it, he would prefer the car to return to Kulwicki's home state of Wisconsin.

"I really want to see someone buy it and (take) the car to Wisconsin," Bean said. "There is a couple of small roars trying to get the car back, but it hasn't happened."

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