Remebering Alan Kulwicki

by Tom Wagner

I consider myself a rational man, a reasonable man, a man not normally given to emotion. But everybody has a soft spot, I guess.

Despite being rational and reasonable, I none-the-less am a stock car fan. Not necessarily racing, but a stock car fan. If you need an interpreter to talk to the drivers, or a globe to find where they call home, I’m not interested. I like to watch races, not necessarily cheer for one guy or the other. I go to tracks where I don’t know a sole and have a great time. So it bothers this rational man that he became attached to a driver that he never met. This is very out of character. Generally this man doesn’t curse at the tube when misfortune strikes a driver, or cheer loudly trackside when somebody pulls off a big win. He usually doesn’t even applaud. I never collected cards, or souvenirs, or models of anybody in particular. Maybe its because I’ve worked in racing that its become a job, that those are giant remote control toys zipping around the track with no one behind the wheel. Whatever the case, rationality left this man one time.

Maybe it was because I saw him race in person a few times before he made it big, or because he was from Wisconsin, or because he won now and again. But how could that be? I had seen Trickle and Musgrave and Sauter and Bickle race…even interviewed Bickle once on a long forgotten night in Luxemburg. Why did that one guy capture my attention that way? Even plodding along in the Quincy car, I was always wondering where he was while the cameras chased the leaders. Yes, this story is about Kulwicki. Many of you shared with Alan the emotional swings of wins and losses, losing a major sponsor, then gaining another almost by accident. Of the glorious championship. I think those were tears welling in my eyes as he made that acceptance speech. Couldn’t have been though, I’m rational, reasonable, not emotional. Something in my eye, I suppose.

But then it happened. That horrendous April Fool’s joke that wasn’t a joke. It was real. My stomach knotted that morning when the call came. Went to work as usual, but people were stopping by, offering condolences, seriously, as if a family member of mine had died! Was it that obvious? Did I talk about him that much? Geez, I forgot to shave.

We sat there, my wife and I, watching the telecast from Bristol. They knew him, their heads were bowed, the words had meaning. My wife doesn’t like racing, but I guess she likes me. She shared my mood. “There will come a time when we will be better.” He said something like that just the week before. I said it too as I got up to head for the bathroom. Something in my eye again, this time much worse.

By this time I was resigned to the fact that I was an Alan Kulwicki fan, and now Alan Kulwicki was dead. I remember war stories of soldiers not wanting to get too close to the new guy, because if someone were to die, it would probably be him. Then you’d be left grieving for a guy you hardly even had a chance to meet. So there I sat, feeling this real sense of grief for a guy I didn’t know. They say a funeral is therapeutic; helps bring a sense of finality to the matter. Well, that’s for family and friends, not me. But something would have to be done. So, Mr. Rational-Reasonable-Not Emotional devised a plan.

The annual Great America trip this year would include a pilgrimage to St. Adelbert’s Cemetery while passing through Milwaukee. Hey, I’m just a common guy, wouldn’t have been right for me to be there during the actual services. I didn’t even know this fellow; I’d have been a pest. This way, I can say good-bye on my own…and not appear too foolish.

So the adventure begins. With wife and daughter in tow, and son left back at the motel convinced the men in white suits would soon be dragging his father away, the quest for 6th Street is on. In Sturgeon Bay, our numbered streets only go up to 21, so finding a street numbered only 6 should be a piece of cake, even in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Armed with a sketchy map liberated from the motel phone book, it soon became obvious that the planner of this mission had left out a few details. After a time, the five year old was sure that Daddy was lost, the wife was about 80% sure, but the credo of all men was still holding strong…”Never ask directions”. As they say, even a blind chicken gets a kernel of corn now and then. Taking a somewhat less than direct path, there was 6th Street, and there was St. Adelbert’s, about 45 seconds from the spot we had passed on the Interstate hours before.

Problem two. When I was a lad, living in the sprawling metropolis of Maplewood, Wisconsin, we lived at the base of THE church hill in town. Sometimes, for lack of anything better to do, I’d go up there and browse around the tombstones, looking for the oldest, the youngest, relatives. You kind of knew where everybody was. As I pulled into St. Adelbert’s, it became quite clear to this small town boy that he wasn’t in Maplewood anymore, Toto. Another small detail we, ah, I, forgot to plan for. Which way to turn? Not even a stolen phone book map to help out here, so turn right. Wrong. We drove a bit, my wife asked a couple, they never heard of him they said. Must be from Illinois, I thought. Drove around some more, different couple, same answer. By this time I was ready to run the surrender flag up the pole. Darks coming, there’s no way we’ll find him. We’ll come back when some workers are here. They’ll know. After all, I’m starting to get embarrassed. A reasonable man would not be driving around in a cemetery looking for the grave of a guy that he never met. This is nuts. But my dear wife begged to differ.

Dragged all over town, and this close to the objective, her mind was made up. While we NEVER argue, we had a slight discussion on what to do next. About this time, there he was, walking around among the stones, not looking at any grave in particular. Just walking. “Stop the car, I’m going to ask that guy.” “No...we’ll come back tomorrow!” “Stop…the…car! I’m getting out!” “NO”, I said. “He don’t know nothing!” That’s exactly what I said, bad grammar and all. But she was out the door with the car still rolling, approaching this guy. Here I sit, a cross between angry, frustrated and embarrassed trying to look the other way. Then I look up. Here they come, kind of arm in arm. She hops in, looks at me, and casually says, “Follow him. He’s Alan’s uncle.” Don’t toy with me girl.

In less than a minute of following his car, I’m standing at the foot of Alan Kulwicki’s grave with a guy by the name of Len Kulwicki. I guess I expected some type of grand tomb, after all, this was a Winston Cup Champion. But the stone bears his mother’s maiden name, and the sod is laying there in a kind of patchwork quilt arrangement. “Gerry won’t like that,” Lenny notes. Very down to earth, everything here very common. We straighten the sod out together, so it at least appears a little better. Straightening the sod on Alan Kulwicki’s grave with his uncle. What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing at all, other than the fact that I’M in it! How the heck did this happen? My wife says, “You owe me big time”.

Lenny told us about the funeral, about who was there, about Alan’s girlfriend and their plans that were now crushed. He told us about Alan. It felt good to be there. Lenny wanted to give me a picture, but all his stuff was in the back of the other car. That’s OK we say, but he insisted. So plans are made to meet back on Tuesday, at the grave.

We relayed this to our son back at the motel, who didn’t believe it of course. Just the same, all four of us were there Tuesday at the predetermined time. No Lenny. We’ll wait ten minutes. No Lenny. I guess just meeting him was fine. We can live without a picture. Maybe just ten more minutes. My son is convinced that somebody will be coming soon, probably those guys in the white suits. Five minutes more, come on, just five minutes. Finally…Lenny!! He had to pick up his lottery tickets and fell behind schedule. Lenny gave me the picture he promised, standard autograph session fare. But what a treat, receiving it from his uncle. Now he continues to dig around in the back seat, and out he comes with a handful of Winston Cup Scenes. “Ever see these? Here take ‘em. I’ve read ‘em.” There in the bunch of papers, the December issue with Alan on the cover in Time’s Square, a champion. And at the other end of the spectrum, the issue that announced his death in Tennessee. The heads bowed. We shook hands after a while, and said good-bye.

Chance meeting…coincidence…luck shot…one in a million. Prudent men, reasonable men, rational men, would never believe something like that could be set up by somebody. Why he was wandering about nowhere near Alan, but where we happened to be instead, I don’t know. Maybe a friend or other relative there. Why did she choose to ask him directions after passing others by? I guess things just happen.

At home, we have the papers that rang out the sad news, Winston Cup Yearbooks, Stock Car Racing magazine with Alan on the cover, Alan Kulwicki T-Shirts. I even broke down and bought an Alan Kulwicki model car. My wife bought me two more, so I STILL owe her big time (2003 note: the car collection, sort of, grew dramatically since then!!!). But the pride of the collection are those Winston Cup Scenes, the same issues that I’m sure lots of fans saved. But mine are postmarked to Leonard Kulwicki. Put a value on them? Sell them? Don’t even ask.

Now someone not as reasonable as me, someone more emotional than me, might think that there was more to this chance meeting than meets the eye. Like maybe there was some guidance from somebody somewhere orchestrating the whole thing. But, if that WERE true, and I would be the type of person that thinks that way (which I’m not, of course), then those two racing papers would be more than just paper and ink. They could be a symbol, given to this common fan from someone who knew just how special these papers would become. Perhaps it was the only way he was able to express it. It just could be a way of saying thank you from this guy you never met, but got to know very well in your heart. A long distance thank you…for caring…for being a fan…for coming to say good-bye. A long distance thank you…from a friend.

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