Remembering Alan Kulwicki

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the tragic death of Alan Kulwicki.  Almost five months after reaching the pinnacle of NASCAR, his life was cut short in a tragic plane crash.  Even in a rather short time in the sport, his impact is still felt.  This special story looks back at the career and life of Alan Kulwicki.

Alan Kulwicki was born on December 14, 1954 in Greenfield, Wisconsin.  He showed an early interest in racing.  He started competing in various short tracks in the Midwest.  Early in the 1980's, he started racing in some USAC and ASA .  He entered into NASCAR in the middle part of the decade.  He made his Busch Series debut near his hometown in Milwaukee in 1984.  He made his Winston Cup debut at Richmond in 1985.  Kulwicki won Rookie of the Year honors in 1986.
 
Kulwicki formed his own racing team in the late 1980's.  For the 1988 season, Zerex Antifreeze joined him as his sponsor.  He also started running his familiar #7 on his cars.  Alan found victory lane for the first time in November at Phoenix in 1988, winning the Checker 500.  Kulwicki found a rather unique way to celebrate the win.  He took his victory lap going the other way.  It became known as a "Polish Victory Lap"
 
Kulwicki picked up wins in Rockingham in 1990 and Bristol in 1991.  During the 1991 season, Hooters Restaurants became his sponsor.  As the 1992 season dawned, there were the usual names being talked about as to who might win the Winston Cup championship.  Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Davey Allison, and Bill Elliott were seen by many as the favorites.  Nobody even thought about including Kulwicki in that talk.  But, by season's end, Kulwicki made sure he was in the running.
 
Kulwicki won two races during the '92 season (Bristol and Pocono).  But with six races to go, he was fourth in the standings, 278 points behind leader Bill Elliott.  Kulwicki then made one of the most dramatic rallies in NASCAR history.  Going into the season finale at Atlanta, Alan trailed Davey Allison by only 30 points.
 
The Hooters 500 is still regarded as one of the greatest races in NASCAR history.  On the day Richard Petty ran his final race. Alan Kulwicki was locked in a dramatic battle for the championship with Davey Allison and Bill Elliott.  Alan had considered himself as an underdog in the battle.  In fact, on the front of his Ford, where "Thunderbird" was on that part of the car. the T and the H were taken off, making it read "Underbird".
 
About midway through the race, Davey Allison got caught up in a wreck that ended his chances.  So it was Kulwicki and Elliott left to fight it out.  It would come down to who would lead the most laps to claim a five point bonus.  Alan gambled on gas mileage, stretching it out.  It paid off.  Elliott won the race with Kulwicki second.  But, Alan led one more lap than Elliott, giving him the bonus points, and the championship by ten points over Elliott.  At the time, it was the closest in Cup history.  Kulwicki celebrated his championship the only way he knew how:  With another "Polish Victory Lap".  He is the last owner/driver to win a Cup title.
 
With his Winston Cup Championship, Alan Kulwicki had established himself as one of the elite drivers in NASCAR.  No more was he considered an "Underbird".  The question became how would he continue that success.  Sadly, that question will be left unanswered.
 
On April 1st, 1993, Kulwicki was aboard a plane taking him to Bristol, Tennessee for that week's race.  The plane crashed just outside of Bristol.  Alan died in the accident.  The next day, his transporter left a rainy Bristol Motor Speedway with everyone in NASCAR looking on.  It remains one of the saddest moments in the sport's history.
 
Along with his championship, Alan Kulwicki won five races in his Winston Cup career, along with 24 poles and 75 top ten finishes.  He was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
 
Despite his short time in the sport and his tragic death, Alan Kulwicki's legacy in NASCAR is secure.  He went from being an underdog in NASCAR to a champion.  He will forever be remember in NASCAR that way.  His legacy will never be forgotten.

By:  CrimsonCowboy

 
Contributing credits in this story to Wikipedia, NASCAR.com and foxsports.com.

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