Story published in the Johnson City Press:
3/22/2003.


 
Joe Avento

Kulwicki’s bright star faded far too fast

By Joe Avento
Press Sports Writer

BRISTOL — It’s difficult to believe it’s been almost 10 years since NASCAR lost one of its brightest stars.

Less than five months after winning the Winston Cup championship, Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash shortly before he was to arrive at Tri-Cities Regional Airport. It was April 1, 1993 and Kulwicki’s future appeared bright.

“There’s no way it seems like 10 years,” Paul Andrews, Kulwicki’s crew chief at the time, said Friday. “It still hurts. I’ve lost family members, and to this day, that was the toughest loss in my life.”

Kulwicki, the last owner-driver to capture the title, was looking forward to big things. But something went wrong on the plane heading to the Tri-Cities from Knoxville, where he had attended an autograph session at Hooters. Kulwicki, Hooters executive Mark Brooks, sports marketing director Dan Duncan and pilot Charlie Campbell never made it. There were no survivors.

Andrews, now crew chief for Jeff Burton’s team, wasn’t on the plane because the team’s performance hadn’t been up to par.

“Our pit stops were not where we thought we needed to be and we elected to stay back at the shop and do pit-stop practice,” he said. “We were going to get to Bristol about the same time.

“It saved our life.”

As word of the crash got out, speculation began to spread. When it was learned that a driver might have been on the plane, the phone lines began to buzz. Dale Earnhardt was scheduled to land around the same time.

Wayne Estes, vice president for communications and events for Bristol Motor Speedway, was working for Ford at the time. He was at the Garden Plaza Hotel in Johnson City waiting for L.A. Law to come on television. That’s when WCYB, the Bristol NBC affiliate, showed an alert saying a plane had crashed.

“My first thought was ‘Thursday night before practice starts; I know somebody on that airplane,’ ” Estes said. “But we didn’t have any idea who it was.”

About an hour later, he knew.

When the 11 o’clock news came on, footage of the crash site was shown.

“I recognized the plane,” Estes said.

Estes called Don Hawk, former general manager for Alan Kulwicki Racing.

“He said ‘Alan’s on that plane,’ ” Estes said. “He knew. It was the worst possible feeling I could have.”

The next morning, a news conference was held at the Bristol track. Kulwicki’s transporter was parked near the start-finish line. It was already a gloomy morning, but the site of the truck made it worse. Reality had begin to set in.

“It just sent cold chills all over me,” Estes said. “I walked up to Paul (Andrews) and said ‘Paul, what are you doing?’ He said ‘Where else do we go?’

“Alan was everything for that team. They had a crew chief and a manager, but Alan made the decisions for that race team. When he crashed, they didn’t know what else to do except come to the race track. They had no owner. They had no driver.”

Andrews said the team didn’t know what to do or where to turn the day after the crash.

“There were so many questions to be answered,” he said. “Hell, we didn’t know what to feel like. It was a pretty empty feeling for a long time.

“It was devastating. It’s not possible to put into words. It was an unbelievable, empty feeling. We were all close as a group and we all lost a really good friend. Not only a friend, but our boss, our driver. It was a devastating deal.”

After some counseling, it was decided the team should go home. The races would go on, although nothing would be the same.

Someone hung a reef on the front of the truck. Then, with everybody in the infield lined up along the pit wall, the transporter began the journey to the gate. It was a lap nobody would ever forget.

“That was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever seen,” Estes said. “Everybody was just sick. You’re here at Bristol, always such a fun place to come, and that weekend, nobody really wanted to be here.”

Estes was with Kukwicki when the term “Polish victory lap” was coined. It was in Phoenix in 1988 and the young driver had earned his first Winston Cup victory. He celebrated by doing a counter-clockwise victory lap. A Ford engineer slapped him on the back and asked if that was a “Polish” victory lap.

Little did anybody know, a new NASCAR term was born.

The races did go on as scheduled after the crash. Michael Waltrip won the Busch race and did what amounted to half a victory lap, saying he didn’t want to do Kulwicki’s entire routine.

The next day, however, Rusty Wallace won and did the entire deal. He dedicated the race to Kulwicki and more or less made the “Polish” thing en vogue.

Kulwicki had won his Winston Cup championship in the final race of the 1992 season at Atlanta. It was Richard’s Petty’s last race and Jeff Gordon’s first.

“I honestly think had he lived, that wouldn’t have been the only championship he won,” said Lori Worley, BMS senior manager of credentials and communications. “He was a great race-car driver. I think it changed the sport when he died and when Davey Allison died. A lot of people won races I don’t think they would have won if those two guys had been around.”

Kulwicki will always be remembered as a different sort. He had a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwakuee. He ran his own team, making just about every decision there was to be made.

“He was quiet,” Worley said. “He was studious. He knew everything about the car, but he didn’t look like he would know everything about that car. He was just the kind of guy who went out of his way to be nice to people. And he was a gentleman.”

It was the college education that separated Kulwicki from the vast majority of his fellow drivers.

“He was intelligent, really intelligent,” Andrews said. “He could tell you things about the race car. We’d tell him how many more laps he had before he had to pit for fuel, and he’d say ‘Are you sure about that? I think you’re a couple of laps short.’ And we’d go back and figure we were a couple of laps short. He was very observant in the race car.”

Much has changed in the 10 years since he’s been gone. But for plenty of people, Alan Kulwicki will never be forgotten.

“I still think about it every day,” Estes said.

(Contact Joe Avento at javento@johnsoncitypress.com).