- December 14, 1954
- April 01, 1993
- United States
- Not Active
Alan Kulwicki is one of the greatest stock car racing legends whose legacy in NASCAR transcends his results. Kulwicki recorded 207 starts in the Winston Cup Series between 1985 and 1993, winning five times and becoming the Winston Cup champion in 1992, driving for his own team. Unfortunately, his career and his life ended prematurely, in a aircraft accident on April 1, 1993. He died at the age 38.
Except as a champion, Kulwicki is most known as an inventor of the 'Polish Victory Lap', named after his Polish roots. He was the first driver to celebrate a race victory by driving a victory lap in the opposite direction, on November 6, 1988, at Phoenix International Raceway. After that, especially after his death, many drivers were doing Polish Victory Lap to honor Kulwicki's life.
Alan's father was a crew chief for some racers
Alan Dennis Kulwicki was born on December 14, 1954, in Greenfield, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was raised few blocks from the Milwaukee Mile race track, in the Polish-American neighborhood. His father Gerry Kulwicki was a crew chief for some USAC race car drivers, so Alan was connected with racing since the earliest days.
He began his racing career as a 13-year-old boy with go-karts, switching to stock cars in 1973. He was the best rookie at the Hales Corners Speedway championship. He competed on the dirt tracks with late model stock cars until 1977, when he moved to paved tracks. In 1977, Kulwicki received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Later in a racing career, his knowledge of engineering helped him a lot to better understand race cars.
Scoring track championship titles before NASCAR debut
In the following years, between 1977 and 1980, Kulwicki has won the track championships at Slinger Super Speedway and Wisconsin International Raceway. In 1979, Kulwicki entered few regional and national events sanctioned by the USAC Stock Car series and the American Speed Association (ASA). He finished third in the ASA championships two times, in 1982 and 1985.
In May 1984, Kulwicki debuted in NASCAR, participating in the Busch Grand National Series race at Milwaukee Mile, driving the #7 Oldsmobile for Ed Whitaker. He finished second in his NASCAR debut. Later in the season, he participated in three more races in the same car.
NASCAR Winston Cup Series debut in 1985
In 1985, he started a season with Goody's 300 at Daytona International Speedway. He participated in one more Busch Series race at Milwaukee Mile, but his focus was on starting a career in the Winston Cup Series. Because of that, he moved from Wisconsin to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Kulwicki's debut race in the NASCAR premium series was at Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway in September 1985, with #32 Ford of Terry Motorsports. Kulwicki collected five Winston Cup starts with Bill Terry's cars during 1985, finishing best in the 13th place at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
1986 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year
The first full season in the Winston Cup Series followed in 1986. Kulwicki started a season failing to qualify for Daytona 500 with Terry's #32 car. He later switched to the #35 Ford, scoring his season's best result at Martinsville, where he was fourth.
On August 31, at Darlington Raceway, Kulwicki switched the #35 to his own team AK Racing. Since then, until the end of a career, he was driving only his cars. The AK Racing was a one-man team, with Kulwicki as a driver, owner, crew chief, and chief mechanic. As an experienced engineer, Kulwicki was a 'control freak' and he wanted a perfection from his associates, so it was difficult for him to find and to keep crew members. He ended his first full season in the 21st place, the best among rookies.
1987 - first full season with his own team
For the 1987 Winston Cup season, Kulwicki secured primary sponsorship from Zerex Antifreeze and changed his number to 7. After finishing 15th in the season-opening Daytona 500, he picked up his first career pole two rounds later at Richmond. He scored three poles during a season, with second place as his best race result. He was closest to victory at Pocono, finishing second behind Dale Earnhardt. With nine top 10 finishes, Kulwicki was 15th in the points at the end of 1987.
In 1988, Kulwicki performance improved, with Paul Andrews as his crew chief. Kulwicki scored seven Top 5 finishes, including his first victory at Phoenix International Raceway in the penultimate race of the season, on November 6.
Marking the first win in a career with a Polish victory lap
After leading 41 laps, he won ahead of Terry Labonte and Davey Allison. After the race, celebrating the victory, Kulwicki turned his car around and made, what he called, a "Polish victory lap" by driving the opposite way (clockwise) on the track, with the driver's side of the car facing the fans.
"This gave me the opportunity to wave to the crowd from the driver's side. There will never be another first win and you know, everybody sprays champagne or stands up on the car. I wanted to do something different for the fans“, Kulwicki explained. He finished the 1988 season 14th in the final standings.
Kulwicki didn't want to drive for others
In 1989, Kulwicki started his own engine-building program, still competing with the #7 Ford. Unfortunately, he suffered many engine failures and dropped in the points after he was in the championship lead after first five races of the season. He scored five poles, missing the victories, to finish 14th in the points at the end of the season.
For the 1990 season, Kulwicki was invited by Junior Johnson to join his team, as a replacement for Terry Labonte. Kulwicki declined, continuing to drive Zerex-sponsored #7 Ford Thunderbird for his own team. The second Winston Cup victory in a career followed in October at Rockingham. At the end of the year, he was 8th in the points.
Hooters became Alan's sponsor in 1991
Zerex ended the sponsorship deal before the 1991 season. Kulwicki was invited again by Junior Johnson and he declined again, thinking that he would have a deal with Maxwell House Coffee, but the sponsor turned to Junior Johnson's team. Kulwicki started a season without a sponsorship, having only the US Army livery at Daytona 500. For the fourth race of the season, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he made a deal with Hooters. Good results in that race brought him an extension of a contract.
The #7 Hooters Ford scored a victory, the third for Kulwicki, in August at Bristol International Speedway. Except for that win, he had ten more Top 10 results, finishing 13th in the points.
The fourth victory followed on April 5, 1992, again at Bristol. Prior to that victory, Kulwicki scored his career-best result at Daytona 500, finishing fourth. Kulwicki's fifth and the last victory followed in June at Pocono International Raceway. Consistency put him in a contention for the championship title, together with five more drivers who were in a game with three more races to go.
The 'underbird' won the championship title
The final race of the season was the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It is considered as one of the most eventful races in NASCAR history. Except for championship fight, it was the final race for seven-time champion Richard Petty. Davey Allison was a points leader, ahead of Kulwicki and Bill Elliott. In total, six drivers had chances to win the championship that day.
It's interesting that Kulwicki received approval from NASCAR and Ford to change the "Thunderbird" lettering on his bumper to "underbird" because he felt like the underdog in the contention for the championship. During his first pit stop, the first gear in the car's transmission broke, so he had to leave pit road in fourth gear and repeated that few times.
Kulwicki took the title in the closest ever season's finish
The championship leader Davey Allison crashed out from the race when he runs into spinning Ernie Irvan's car on lap 73. Kulwicki and Elliott continued to fight for the title. While leading late in the race, crew chief Paul 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.
At the end, Kulwicki finished second, behind Elliot, but maintained his 10-point lead and won the championship. It was the closest title win in NASCAR Cup Series history until the implementation of the Chase for the Cup format in 2004. Celebrating the title, Kulwicki made his second Polish victory lap in a career.
Kulwicki was killed in an aircraft crash
As the 1993 Winston Cup champion, Kulwicki had been selected to compete in the 1993 International Race of Champions (IROC). He competed in two IROC races before his death, finishing ninth at Daytona in February and eleventh at Darlington in March.
In the 1993 Winston Cup season, Kulwicki returned with the championship-winning #7 Hooters Ford. After finishing 26th at Daytona 500, he scored two Top 5 results in the next four races. His last race was the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway on March 28. He finished sixth.
A few days later, on April 1, the reigning NASCAR champion died in an airplane crash near Blountville, Tennessee, together with two more passengers and a pilot. Kulwicki was returning with Hooters corporate place from a Hooters event at Knoxville. He was buried at St. Adalbert's Cemetery in Milwaukee.
Many drivers performed Polish victory laps
Kulwicki's car was driven by Tommy Kendall and Jimmy Hensley for the rest of the season before the team was sold to Geoff Bodine. Three days after Kulwicki's death, Bristol race winner Rusty Wallace honored his former rival and good friend by performing Polish victory lap.
After the final race of the season, series champion Dale Earnhardt and race winner Wallace drove a side-by-side Polish victory lap carrying flags for Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who also died in 1993.
Keeping a memory and legacy live: book, movie, museum...
Many institutions and organisations honored Kulwicki's life and achievements. The Slinger Super Speedway has held an annual Alan Kulwicki Memorial race since 1993. Milwaukee County created Alan Kulwicki Memorial Park in 1996. It features a Kulwicki museum inside the Brooks Pavilion.
The Bristol Motor Speedway named its grandstand in turns one and two in honor of Kulwicki, as well as a terrace above the grandstand. The 2004 Busch Series race at the Milwaukee Mile was named the "Alan Kulwicki 250" in honor of Kulwicki.
In 2009, a father Dale Grubba, the priest who had presided over Kulwicki's funeral, released a biographical book entitled „Alan Kulwicki: NASCAR champion Against All Odds“. Kulwicki's life is also described in a movie Dare to Dream: The Alan Kulwicki Story, released in 2005.
Students and young drivers are keeping the memory to Alan Kulwicki
Kulwicki was posthumously inducted into many Halls of Fame, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2010.
In 2010, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee created the Alan Kulwicki Memorial Student Center in their Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Building. One of the latest projects is the Alan Kulwicki Driver Development program, started in 2015 by Kulwicki's friends to help worthy drivers along the way in reaching their dream and to keep Alan Kulwicki's memory and legacy alive.