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In Memory of Alan--Ten Years Gone (Revisited)

Posted: March 31, 2003

By: The Commish | Writers Bio

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On Tuesday, April 1, we will observe the tenth anniversary of the death of Alan Kulwicki, Mark Brooks, Dan Duncan, and Charlie Campbell. I first published this column before last November's Atlanta race, and it got some of the most emotional feedback I’ve ever received from anything I’ve written, on the Internet or anywhere else, in twenty-five years of writing. I’ve been sent stories and photos of lovingly-restored cars, celebrating memories too priceless to ever forget. And so, with Barry Albert’s kind indulgence, I repeat the column to honor the lives of two of my racing heroes. There will be a candlelight vigil in Greenfield, WI, on Tuesday night to honor Kulwicki (see http://www.frontstretch.com/michelsen/030326.htm or contact dennis@frontstretch.com for details). If, like me, geography prevents you from being there, then wherever you are, light a candle, put “My Way” on the stereo, and remember:

The final race of the season. A tight points battle between an intense, introverted veteran and a brash, competitive young gun. A competition between two teams that had fought through adversity and somehow stayed together. A climactic battle book ended by the end of veteran careers and the introduction of promising new rookie talent. I’m not talking about Homestead this weekend. I’m talking about Atlanta, 1992.

Many of the fans who surf the Net and follow races now weren’t following NASCAR a decade ago. They root for Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as if those two racers were the first young fireballs to challenge for the top. To those fans, the names of Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison are just that—names. They don’t bring to mind a picture of a fierce, scowling competitor, or a wide-open, joyous grin. For those of us who remember, though, racing for a championship on the last day of the season will always call to mind the drivers of the #7 car and the #28 car.

If you don’t know the story, you should. Alan Kulwicki, fiercely independent, struggled to keep his fledgling race team alive. A college-trained engineer, he turned down offers of better jobs with well-financed teams in order to be his own boss, crew chief, team manager, motivator. When the little-known Hooters restaurant chain signed on with him in 1991, it was a life-saver. He responded in 1992 by moving into the top three in points at the first Pocono race, behind Allison and Bill Elliott, and setting up the greatest three-way championship fight in history with two wins, eleven top fives, and 17 top tens.

Elliott himself had a great year. Driving the #11 Budweiser Ford, he won four straight races from Rockingham to Darlington, and ended up with five wins, 14 top fives, and 17 top tens. And Davey? In many ways he had the most incredible year of all.

Since he came into Winston Cup in 1985 Davey Allison had lived up to his father’s and uncle’s legacy with grace and good humor. He began the season by winning the 1992 Daytona 500, leading the final 98 laps. With five wins, 15 top fives, and 17 top tens, he dominated the statistical ranks. In that same year he buried his grandfather and his brother Clifford, killed in a racing wreck at Michigan; and suffered injuries in wrecks at Bristol, The Winston, and most notably the Miller 500 at Pocono, where he broke his collarbone, forearm and wrist. He accomplished all this while helping his father Bobby recover from head injuries suffered at Pocono in 1989 that left his memory clouded and his walk halting. He carried the weight of his whole family on his shoulders.

After a series of crashes, inexplicable parts failures, rain-shortened races, and other heartbreaks, the three contenders—Elliott, Kulwicki, and Allison—came into the last race of the season separated only by 40 points. Allison led, Kulwicki was 30 behind, and Elliott trailed by 10 more. If Allison finished sixth, he would win the championship. The race was further enlivened by being Richard Petty’s last race—and the first race for a new team from Hendrick Motorsports, driven by some rookie kid from Indiana with a bad mustache and worse haircut.

The race itself was one for the ages. The King got caught up in Kenny Schrader’s wreck at lap 97, destroying the front end of the STP car. He would pull into the garage and only come out again for one ceremonial lap at the end. The rookie's car was way loose and smacked the wall on lap 164, ending his day, though Hendrick tried to put him in an ailing Ricky Rudd’s car to finish the race (a request denied by NASCAR). The #28 crew chief, Larry MacReynolds, and the #7 crew chief, Paul Andrews, calculated and re-calculated fuel mileage by hand, trying to guess who would lead the most laps and gain those crucial bonus points. With 76 laps to go, Ernie Irvan sideswiped Terry Labonte, barely missing Rusty Wallace, and made contact with Allison, sending him into the wall and breaking the right front tie rod on the Havoline car. He would lose 40 laps for repairs; Davey’s championship hopes were done. Now it was up to Kulwicki and Elliott.

The two cars were fairly equal, and it became clear that the five bonus points for most laps led would probably win the race. Andrews kept Kulwicki, driving his Ford “Underbird” with the decal of Mighty Mouse on the hood, out on the track until lap 310, just long enough to guarantee that he would lead the most laps for the day. Elliott, not conserving gas, chased hard in the Budweiser Ford but couldn’t get that one extra lap. He would win the race, but Kulwicki would win the points title 4,078 to 4,068. He sealed the championship with his patented Polish Victory Lap and one of the most well-deserved championships in Winston Cup history. At the banquet in New York, his victory was celebrated to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—the song that still defines his legacy. All the members of his team wore custom-made gold-and-pearl lapel pins featuring Mighty Mouse. {Note: The “Underbird” has been lovingly restored by Pam and Larry Bean and is now on loan to the NC Motorsports Museum; see its story at www.underbird.com.}

Kulwicki got to enjoy that banquet, and to taste a little of the pleasure and pressure of defending a Cup. He had three top sixes in the first five races of the 1993 season. Allison struggled but won at Richmond; Elliott struggled through engineering woes; Dale Earnhardt began to show championship form while the Hendrick rookie bounced off walls at almost every track he visited.

Then came Thursday, April 1, 1993. Flying from Knoxville to Bristol after a sponsor’s appearance for Hooters, Kulwicki and three other men were killed when the small plane they had borrowed from Hooters crashed in bad weather near the airport. (Kulwicki hadn’t leased a jet of his own to save money.) On Friday, after taking a slow ceremonial lap around the track, Peter Jellen drove the #7 Ford hauler back home to Charlotte. Kulwicki would be buried in Wisconsin the following Wednesday, where the “My Way” video was played as part of the service. Those of us who attended a memorial Mass for Kulwicki the next day at St. Thomas’s church in Charlotte, where he worshipped, saw it again and will never forget it. Davey Allison, one of the mourners, told friends that now he understood why God had kept him from winning the 92 championship.

Allison would struggle in the next few weeks but managed to get up to sixth in the standings by the 4th of July race at Daytona. He was excited and competitive and that incredible infectious grin shone everywhere. Then, on Monday July 12, 1993, he decided to fly his new Hughes 369-C helicopter to Talladega to watch childhood friend David Bonnett test his Busch car. But the copter was buffeted by crosswinds as it tried to land, and Davey didn’t have the experience to compensate. The helicopter crashed, critically injuring passenger Red Farmer, who was rescued by Neil Bonnett. Davey, however, had suffered massive brain injuries. Despite the best efforts of doctors and the prayers of wife Liz and his family, he died at 7 am central time the next morning, only eleven months after his brother died on the track at Michigan. {Note: after the first publication of this column, a reader informed me that Davey had altered the seatbelts in his copter, which may have contributed to his injuries.}

And suddenly, they were gone. The shock of Kulwicki’s death was only just wearing off, and now the crown prince, the inheritor of the Alabama Gang’s legacy, the smiling father of two gorgeous kids, was no more. Other drivers would rise up, would step into the #7 and #28 cars—Geoff Bodine and Ernie Irvan, who warmed everyone’s heart after his first victory in the car by unzipping his fire suit to reveal a Davey Allison t-shirt. But it was not the same. Earnhardt won the championship by 80 points over Rusty Wallace, and the two circled the track at Atlanta bearing the #7 and #28 flags. But it was not the same. The kid—whose name turned out to be Gordon—won Rookie of the Year and demonstrated both fierce competitiveness and a smile of his own. But it was not the same.

Ten years have passed. The #7 and #11 cars struggle now, and the #28 will disappear next week, to be replaced by the #38. But the echoes are still there. Kulwicki’s engineering bent lives on in the commitment of Ryan Newman, Matt Borland, and a host of new techno-nerds who are changing our sport forever. Davey’s breezy confidence lives on in winners like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. Their crew members Paul Andrews and Tony Gibson are still turning wrenches and Peter Jellen is still driving a hauler, while Larry Mack, Ty Norris, and Michael Kranefuss are all active in the sport. Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace continue to race like the champions they are. The King is still the King, and always will be. His last crew chief now works for the rookie with the goofy mustache and bad haircut, who has lived up to his promise and has four Winston Cup trophies to prove it. Occasionally, when NASCAR guys dress up, you’ll still see a Mighty Mouse lapel pin.

But it’s not the same. The champion and the challenger, always inextricably linked. And every year as a championship is decided, our hearts echo with their legacies. Ten years gone—but never, never forgotten. Vaya con Dios, amigos.

(If you want to read more about these incredible racing champions, the Commish recommends David Poole's Race With Destiny: The Year That Changed NASCAR Forever, which chronicles their rise and fall. My thanks to all those Kulwicki and Allison fans who shared their memories with me after the first publication of this article.)

 

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