Today is April 1st, a day that for many is a fun and prank filled day with friends. For some it is a sign that spring is right around the corner. However, for some long time NASCAR fans it’s bittersweet, as we remember a Champion, a friend and someone who we lost too soon, Alan Kulwicki.
I remember hearing the news, hoping it was an April Fool’s Day joke, one in poor taste. But deep down we knew the truth, we just didn’t want to hear it. We didn’t want to believe that our reigning NASCAR Winston Cup Champion’s plane had crashed as he was coming into Bristol for the race that weekend.
Alan Kulwicki, born December 14th, 1954 was lost to us on April 1st, 1993. He was from Greenfield, Wisconsin which was the stomping ground for many of NASCAR’s finest drivers such as Dick Trickle and Matt Kenseth. He drove in the mid-west ASA Series, winning championships at Slinger and Kaukauna, which are two of the best tracks in Wisconsin, prior to packing up and moving south to make his NASCAR dream come true. He was looked at differently from some of the other drivers, showing up to the track carrying a briefcase. He was the first college graduate to go into NASCAR as a driver, graduating college with a degree in engineering.
One of Alan’s favorite songs was Frank Sinatra’s my way, and that is how he did it. He was NASCAR’s” Rookie of the Year” in 1986. One of the most endearing thing’s about Kulwicki was the comb he always had on hand, even keeping one in the car so that when he took off his helmet he could comb his hair. He was always camera and picture ready.
The one thing that still lives on today is when he won his very first NASCAR race at Phoenix International Speedway in 1988. He turned his car around so that the driver’s side window faced the grandstands and he did what he called the “Polish Victory Lap.” This backwards lap is still done by drivers today in his honor. He was the underdog in NASCAR and became known as NASCAR’s Mighty Mouse, even having cloth patches with AK7 and Mighty Mouse on them. I still have mine.
The year was 1992 and it was a wistful, exciting feeling going into the last race of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, formerly Atlanta International Raceway. It was Richard Petty’s last Cup race of his career and Jeff Gordon’s first. The Championship could have gone to three different drivers; Davey Allison the front runner, along with Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki. Allison’s hopes ended in a crash which took him out of the race but Elliott and Kulwicki ran hard races. It was coming down to a tight finish and the bonus points for leading the most laps pushed Kulwicki 10 points ahead of Elliott to win his first, and sadly his only, championship. In Victory Lane you could not have seen a happier man and even more so he did it “his way”.
Alan was only 38 when he passed and there is no doubt he would have made an even bigger mark on NASCAR had he lived. I ask that you take a moment and remember Alan Kulwicki. He was a clean driver, a determined driver and any future driver in NASCAR could learn a lot from him. So today it’s bittersweet thinking of the past, but I think of him next to his Hooters No. 7, lifting that trophy over his head and reflect; a better champion we could not have asked for.