It’s hard to believe it has already been 20 years since the saddest lap ever turned at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Just hours after defending NASCAR Cup champion Alan Kulwicki and three others died in a plane crash a few miles away from BMS, Kulwicki’s heartbroken team packed up the No. 7 hauler on a foggy, rain-soaked morning and made one slow circuit around the half-mile track before departing into an uncertain future.
Kulwicki’s championship run in 1992 capped off one of the most improbable stories in the history of motorsports. While the late Dale Earnhardt is viewed as NASCAR’s biggest folk hero, Kulwicki’s journey from the short tracks of Wisconsin to the pinnacle of stock car racing is a tall tale almost too fantastic to be believed.
Kulwicki arrived in Charlotte back in 1985 in a borrowed pickup truck towing a small trailer containing some furniture and his tools. Armed with the genius of an engineer, the nerves of a fighter pilot and the business acumen of Donald Trump, Kulwicki won rookie of the year honors in the Cup series in 1986 with one car, two engines and two crew members.
After that campaign, Kulwicki blazed a unique, solitary trail through the sport as an owner/driver. Although his approach was unconventional, Kulwicki’s unrelenting work ethic led to slow but steady progress as the 1980s came to a close. Crew members came and went as a result of Kulwicki’s blunt personality, but armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, his genius was undeniable.
And just when you thought the story couldn’t become more unbelievable, the 1992 season rolled around. Kulwicki erased a 278-point deficit over the final six races of the season to win the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott. To add to the drama, Kulwicki sealed the deal by scoring a second-place finish in Atlanta despite a broken transmission.
But his title defense came to an abrupt halt 20 years ago when that small plane crashed less than 10 miles short of Tri-Cities Airport.
When I think of Kulwicki, I’m always reminded of John Henry, the folk hero known for his prowess as a steel driver. As the story goes, Henry agreed to race against a steam-powered hammer and, against all odds, Henry won only to die in victory with his hammer still in hand.
In the late 1800s, Henry’s story struck a chord with workers all over the world who were struggling to remain relevant at the dawn of the mechanical age.
At the time of Kulwicki’s death, NASCAR was in the early stages of morphing into what it is today — a sport dominated by multicar teams, each one with a room full of engineers and hundreds of workers. As the 1990s came to an end, independent owner/drivers started fading away as Jack Roush, Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress ramped up their multicar fleets. Today, the odds against anyone winning races as the owner and driver on a single-car team are astronomical.
It’s tempting to wonder if the sport would have evolved differently had Kulwicki not climbed onto that plane 20 years ago. Conventional thinking leads me to believe that he ultimately would have been a victim of his own success. Kulwicki would have probably struggled to keep up as his scientific approach to racing was implemented on a grand scale by Roush, Hendrick, Childress and all the rest.
But conventional thinking never had a place in Kulwicki’s world. Oh, how I wish we’d all had the chance to watch Kulwicki dropping the hammer behind the wheel of his “Underbird,” fighting the well-oiled machine NASCAR has become.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can hear him every Monday morning at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.