Saturday, April 01, 2006

Remembering Alan Kulwicki, a guy who really did do it his way

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - When you're on the road as much as you have to be to cover the Nextel Cup circuit it gets kind of hard to keep up with things like dates.
It wasn't until mid-morning Saturday that I realized it was April 1. Which means it was the 13th anniversary of the plane crash in which Alan Kulwicki was killed.
Ironically, a couple of other writers and myself had decided last week that we'd cut out after Saturday's Truck race here and go over to South Boston Speedway to see the USAR Hooters Pro Cup series race at that historic track.
The Hooters series is backed by Bob Brooks, the owner of the Hooters restaurant chain. Brooks' company, of course, sponsored Kulwicki's No. 7 Fords in NASCAR, and his son, Mark, was one of the people who died along with Kulwicki in that crash near the Tri-Cities airport near Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn.
I wasn't covering NASCAR the night Kulwicki's plane went down. I was working at the Charlotte Observer, on the sports desk, though, and I remember it vividly. The phone started ringing that night with people asking if we knew anything. After about three or four calls, we all started looking at each other and saying, "Uh-oh."
Before long, there was word that a plane was indeed down. From that point on, it just became surreal.
Kulwicki's championship in 1992 had been such a remarkable story. And now, he was gone. In our paper the next morning, the story said that Kulwicki and four others had been killed in that crash.
That's because that until very late on that tragic night it was believed that a man named Tom Roberts was on the plane, but he wasn't.
Roberts was Kulwicki's public relations man, and he'd made a late decision not to attend an appearance in Knoxville that night with the driver. That's where Kulwicki and the three others were coming from when the plane went down. Tom is still working in NASCAR - he worked with Rusty Wallace for years and now is the PR guy for Kurt Busch and the No. 2 team - and right after I got on this beat he and I started talking one day about Kulwicki's championship and the 1992 Hooters 500, the final race of that year in Atlanta, and how remarkable that race was.
I wrote a story on that race, in which Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison battled for the championship and Richard Petty drove his final Cup event and Jeff Gordon drove his first, for the newspaper and decided there was so much more to write about it. The led to the first racing book I wrote, which is called "Race With Destiny."
The company that published it went bankrupt about the time it came out, so the book never got any distribution. I'm still proud of the book and hope one day I can somehow rescue it from the financial limbo it's stuck in and get it back on the shelves.
Hardly a weekend goes by when somebody in the NASCAR garage doesn't mention how different the sport might be today if Kulwicki, Allison, Tim Richmond and Rob Moroso had been able to realize their full potential before being cut down by tragedy.
It was 20 years ago this year when Kulwicki left Wisconsin and came south to chase his dreams. The fact that he won the championship just six years later is just one of the many amazing things about his life. There'll never be another one quite like him.


Monkeesfan said...

The sport has forgotten Kulwicki because it has become enamored of the supremely expensive money-guy team owners, and Kulwicki's title as a lesser-funded independent is an embarassment for and indictment of the sport.

Monkeesfan said...

Quick clarification - by embarassment for the sport I mean in terms of embarassing the big-buck money guys. In terms of the purity of the sport, Kulwicki's title was the best thing that could have ever happened.

Anonymous said...

Thank You David
great column
I enjoyed watching Alan for many years around mid-west short tracks
I knew he would be CHAMPION when he went to Nascar

My best memory of Alan was a filler spot where Benny Parson was showing how and what teams ate for lunch,from cattered to elaborate prepared meals
When benny got to the "Underbird" trailer ans asked Alan what was for lunchhe was shown the bologna bread and mayo

He is missed

Anonymous said...

How right your are! Of the 4 that you called out, Kulwicki, Allison, Tim Richmond and Rob Moroso, I think Tim Richmond was one of the greatest drivers from a talent view point. That guy could carry a bad handling car. Look at his wins as a percentage of races run and you will see just how great he was.

Anonymous said...

Make sure you readers pick up a copy of David Poole's book about Tim Richmond. It's great!

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to have seen Alan race around Wisconsin before moving south and was so proud of him when he found success in NASCAR. I was crushed at the news of his death, much like any Earnhardt fan in 2001. I'm also fortunate to own a copy of David's "Race with Destinity" book.
I've read it a number of times and still find it entertaining. Job well done David!!!! I hope that others will be able to read it too someday before Alan is just a footnote in a NASCAR history book.

Anonymous said...

David, your column brought back very vivid memories of that April 1 morning, watching Alan's hauler make that one last Polish Victory lap. Many of us didn't want to believe what we were seeing. Today we "older race fans" remember Alan. I've got my Kulwicki t-shirt and sweatshirts which get a comment every time I wear them to the tracks. Thanks for your thoughts about a great champion.

Angela said...

Great column - would love to ready your book someday should it be published again!

AK Fan said...

Thank you David I just read your article on Alan Kulwicki Thanks for remembering a special guy. Nascar will never be the same without him what he did with almost no money is amazing and says a lot about what kind of person he was. I hope Nascar doesn't forget him I know I won't. I would love to read your book!

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