Monday, April 01, 2013

Twenty Years Ago Today


Alan Kulwicki, reigning Winston (now Sprint) Cup Champion , lost his life in a plane crash along with key crew members and personnel involved with Hooter's - his primary sponsor. It was their plane.

Alan was a significant personage in NASCAR history because he bootstrapped his way to the top. His pit crews were often volunteers, and Alan's education as an engineer was key in setting up his cars. At one point, he had no sponsors. Hooter's sponsored car was unable to make the race in question, and asked to talk to Alan. A one race deal was struck, and at the Atlanta 500 he scored am eighth place finish. This led to a continuing relationship between Hooters and Alan.

The car was a Ford Thunderbird. Later, Alan campaigned NASCAR to allow him to change the nameplate from "Thunderbird" to "Underbird" to note his underdog status, and they allowed it.

He won his Championship in one of the closest races ever in the pre-Chase days.

The 1992 Hooters 500, the final race of the 1992 season, is considered one of the most eventful races in NASCAR history.[47] It was the final race for Richard Petty and the first for Jeff Gordon.[47] Six drivers were close enough in the points standings to win the championship that day.[48] Allison led second-place Kulwicki by 30 points, Bill Elliott by 40, Harry Gant by 97, and Kyle Petty by 98 and needed to finish sixth or better to clinch the championship.[49] Kulwicki received approval from NASCAR and Ford to change the "Thunderbird" lettering on his bumper for the race to "Underbird" because he felt like the underdog in the contention for the championship.[50] During Kulwicki's first pit stop, the first gear in the car's transmission broke.[20] Andrews said, "We had to leave pit road in fourth gear, because we had broken metal parts in there, and only by leaving it in fourth are you not going to move metal around as much. We could only hope that the loose piece of metal didn't get in there and break the gears in half. We had three or four pit stops after it broke. I held my breath all day long."[20] Allison was racing in sixth place, closely behind Ernie Irvan, when Irvan's tire blew with 73 (of 328) laps left in the event.[49] As a result, Allison ran into the side of Irvan's spinning car and his car was too damaged to continue.[49] Kulwicki and Elliott were left to duel for the title.[47] While leading late in the race, Andrews calculated the exact lap for his final pit stop so that Kulwicki would be guaranteed to lead the most laps and would gain five bonus points.[46] Kulwicki made his final pit stop only after leading enough laps to guarantee the bonus points.[20] To save time, the pit crew did a fuel-only pit stop. Not changing tires allowed them to be available to push the car to prevent it from stalling, since the car had to start moving in a higher gear.[20] Because the team's fuel man hurried to add the gasoline during the quick stop, he did not add the desired amount into the tank.[20] As a result, Kulwicki had to conserve fuel to ensure that his car was still running at the end of the race.[20] Elliott won the race and Kulwicki stretched his fuel to finish second.[47] Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship by maintaining his 10-point lead over Elliott.[3] He celebrated the championship with his second Polish Victory Lap.[51] Always conscious of his appearance for potential sponsors, Kulwicki combed his hair, making a national television audience wait for him to emerge from his car.[52]
1992 NASCAR owner's championship trophy
Kulwicki had overcome the 278-point deficit in the final six races of the season by ending with a fifth, a fourth, and two second-place finishes.[23] Kulwicki won the championship because of his consistent high finishes.[43] It was the closest title win in NASCAR Cup Series history until the implementation of the Chase for the Cup format in 2004.[48] The championship was noteworthy for other reasons: Kulwicki was the last owner/driver to win the title for nearly two decades,[53] the first Cup champion with a college degree,[24] and the first Cup champion born in a Northern state.[24] The song that played during a short salute to Kulwicki at the year-end awards banquet was Frank Sinatra's "My Way".[1] During the prep work for the banquet, Elvis' version of "My Way" was found, but Alan insisted on Frank Sinatra's version.
Alan was also noted for being pretty picky!

Another tradition he started was the Polish Victory Lap. After he won a race, he'd cruise around the track backwards, so he could see the crowd and wave, and they could see him. After his death, several of his peers honored him by doing the same when they won, including Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace.

I was a Dale Earnhardt fan back then, through and through. I think I was rooting for Davey Allison to win the championship, but when he had to drop out, I just sat back and enjoyed the race, watching how Kulwicki and his crew chief  Paul Andrews work out the strategy that won them the points necessary to defeat Bill Elliot. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville had won a bunch already, so it seemed to me only fair that the Underbirds should have a shot.

The whole thing was pretty cool because no owner/driver had won the thing in many, many years. We all knew we'd seen history being made, and it was quite a shock when Alan and his mates were killed. What a loss......

And as a side note, Hooter's is still involved by sponsoring their own racing series. They just couldn't bring themselves to sponsor a car in NASCAR's higher echelon. They tried, but found no happiness. They were never to have a relationship like they had with Alan. He was truly one of a kind, and the world is a lesser place without him.


jed said...

Okayyyyyyy then. Yeah, the 'Hooters Cup'. Do the cars have headlights?

Jeffro said...

The headlights are only pasties.