Twenty years ago, NASCAR lost one of its fiercest competitors, and one of its greatest symbols. Privateer Alan Kulwicki was lost in a plane crash while arriving to race at the Bristol Motor Speedway. Kulwicki was the sort of driver which NASCAR needed to be successful, a charismatic blend of stubbornness and raw talent which he used to become series champion over such legendary drivers as Bill Elliott and Davey Allison just a year earlier.
It all began in 1984 with a dream and the unbridled ambition which would make Kulwicki a champion and fan favorite. Kulwicki started running NASCAR Busch Series races, and had mixed results because of the quality of equipment he was in. But, all the equipment was his. Kulwicki had worked hard his entire life, earning a mechanical engineering degree, before deciding that racing was his number one priority.
That’s why, despite only having six Busch Series starts, Kulwicki would sell off his short track equipment to run full-time in the Winston Cup Series beginning in 1986. With the support of team owner Terry Evans, Kulwicki was on the fast track to success. But midway through the season, Evans cut his support for the young driver, meaning Kulwicki would need to go private.
Alone, an unknown northern driver in a still primarily southern series, Kulwicki would outperform any initial expectations by winning the 1986 Rookie of the Year award, despite having only two full-time crew members, and limited sponsorship. It was Kulwicki’s drive, his passion, that led him to such great things, but also made him nearly impossible to work with. Great NASCAR crew chiefs such as Paul Andrews, Tony Gibson, (Now crew chief for Danica Patrick), and the legendary Ray Evernham all made their ways through Kulwicki’s team at one point or another.
Despite the initial hardships, Kulwicki would continue to flourish at the Winston Cup level. This all culminated in 1992 when Kulwicki had stable sponsorship and the ability to drive like a veteran. Despite getting in a 278 point deficit, Kulwicki would fight back with his trademark “Underbird” (He removed the Th earlier in his career and at the 1992 season finale) to be in contention for the championship at the 1992 Hooters 500. With a bit of luck, and a daring drive to second place, the championship was Kulwicki’s, solidifying that race as one of the most important races in NASCAR history.
It was the last championship ever for a privateer owner-driver. And Alan Kulwicki did it his way. The way NASCAR fans wanted their champions to win. Hard-nosed and gritty, Alan Kulwicki defied the odds to be successful in NASCAR. And just like that, he was gone. He had no opportunity to defend his championship which he worked his entire life to earn.
These generations of fans are missing something if they don’t know about Alan Kulwicki, and frankly they won’t get the chance to see anything like it. Alan Kulwicki was the last great privateer in the sport, and unfortunately the success of the owner-driver died with him, twenty years ago today.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486