There are three passions in my life. First and foremost, my wife and best friend, Pam. Second, is following my favorite sport Winston Cup stock car racing...and third, my hobby of restoring classic cars. We followed the race circuit when we lived in the Northern United States, but became really avid race fans when I retired from the Massachusetts State Police and we moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. Since retirement I have had the time and been fortunate enough to be able to indulge in my passions...to restore some classic cars, including a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria and a 1955 Ford T-bird, and to work as a volunteer on racing teams both in the Busch Grand National series and in Winston Cup. I worked in the pits on race weekends for some racing friends, and felt like I was the luckiest guy on earth to get that close to my favorite sport! When Pam and I joined a car club and showed the classic cars in local shows and at "cruises" we noted that they were beginning to include a racecar division at these shows. So, we decided that our next project should be to combine the hobbies and restore a racecar. The idea of being able to fire one up, drive it around the parking lot and rattle the windows in the neighborhood really got me excited. As it turned out this became a bigger project than we ever dreamed it would be!
When the movie DAYS OF THUNDER was filming, I worked as an extra in the movie both here in Daytona and in Darlington, SC. So, I started looking for one of the cars used in the movie to restore and show. What I found for sale was very overpriced for what they were...just cars used in a movie...with no real racing history to them. What I wanted to do was to restore a real racecar that had some legitimate good racing history. But, I wasn't sure just what car, or whether or not I could afford the right car even if I found it. Up until that time I hadn't followed Alan Kulwicki's racing career too closely, but, I had the opportunity to be at his first Winston Cup win at Phoenix, AZ. On the day after the race, Alan and I were on the same flight heading back East. I recognized him and went up to him, shook his hand, and congratulated him on his win. He took the time to make some small talk with me. As race fans know, once we've had an opportunity like that, we make it a point to keep abreast of our 'favorite' drivers.
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Alan drove the Hooters sponsored #008 car in the Atlanta "HOOTERS 500" 1992 season finale. Since Alan considered himself the underdog coming into this race he asked special permission from Ford, and he was allowed to drop the "T H" from THUNDERBIRD...and the car became the "UNDERBIRD" for this one race. He replaced the "T H" with a Mighty Mouse Mascot Patch, and drove the race to a 2nd Place finish ... Bill Elliott won the race but, by leading the most laps Alan clinched the 1992 WINSTON CUP CHAMPIONSHIP!
The next outing for this car was the Atlanta race in the Spring of 1993. Alan was involved in an incident with Geoff Bodine and wrecked the car. Geoff would tell you that as a result of this incident he actually got to know Alan a lot better. This was just two races before we lost Alan in a plane crash on his way to the Bristol race.
I was still actively looking for a stockcar to restore after Alan Kulwicki's untimely death, when Geoff Bodine took over AK RACING. A good friend of mine who worked for Dave Rezendes' Busch team (which was located right next door to the AK RACING shop...now owned by BODINE RACING) let Cal Lawson, the team manager, know that I was interested in purchasing one of Alan's old cars to restore it. At the time Cal thought that the teams showcar might become available at the end of the racing season. So, I kept in touch with Cal. Initially I felt that Alan's showcar would be a noteworthy restoration because it was one of AK Racing chassis and would have some decent racing history and since it was no longer a raceable car it would be more affordable for us. It would also have been one hell of alot less work than a total restoration. After all this was supposed to be a hobby and we didn't want to spend the $30,000+ it would take to buy an AK raceable rolling chassis, which a lower budgeted Winston Cup, ARCA or Sportsman team could buy, install an engine, trans and gear and go racing!
The #008 car raced once more in the Fall of 1993 at Dover...this time with Geoff Bodine at the wheel, and with the Family Channel sponsorship. This was Geoff's first race as the new owner of Alan's team. The car got wrecked pretty badly at this race...as you can see by the photos.
from G.E.B. Racing
after Dover, Del. crash 9/93
of the original parts for Bean
to use in his restoration.
The #008 racecar had quite an impressive history besides being the Winston Cup Championship Car. In 30 Winston Cup starts, #008 won 8 Poles...and, qualified in the top 10 twenty-five times... won only 1 Race... but, finished in the Top 5 seven times, and in the Top 10 fourteen times. Before the #008 Car was retired from racing, it had won $660,202 in race purses (not counting the Championship bonus) and 3,444 in Winston Cup Driver Points.
The first phase of the restoration began in Dec. '93. What was left of the car had been stripped pretty clean by the time we got it, and so the first big chore was to gather up the parts necessary to make it a roller. Dave Rezendes let me store the car in his garage at his house while I contracted to get some help from some racers who had the expertise I lacked to put this car back together. BSR HESS hung the rear clip and straightened the front clip.
In the Spring of '94, I set up camp in my pick-up truck and camper in the parking lot at Dave's shop. I figured the only way to do this restoration right was to park myself right there...and live with the car until it was completed. There would be no other way to be able to get the time in the race shop, and the knowledge of the racing historyof this car from the #7 team than to be right there every step of the way at every stage of this restoration. It was a good thing that I am retired, and as much of a stickler for detail as Alan was...I don't believe that anyone else would have devoted as much attention to this project as I felt I needed to do. Bill Newman, who works for Dave days, also has his own shop, and I moved the car over there, and made it a roller. This made the car a lot easier to jockey around, also, the car needed the suspension hung to locate the wheel positions prior to the hanging of the sheet metal. The sheet metal for the most part is hand fabricated to fit the car and NASCAR templates. Dave was a big help to me, and took a special interest in this restoration project. I worked on getting parts and other tasks done during the days, and Bill worked on the car in his shop nights. Without Dave's and Bill's help, I never could have managed.
The work was done in stages, and I spent 2-3 weeks at a time up in Charlotte in my camper. I went back to Daytona in between and first I sold the 1955 T-bird I had restored. We needed more money for the "UNDERBIRD" restoration. Then, again back to Charlotte for more work. Once again I came back to Daytona, and this time I sold both my '36 Chevy Coupe vintage racecar, and a 1977 Winston Cup Monte Carlo I had begun to restore earlier. I was now focused on the restoration at hand, and it became almost an obsession of mine to bring this car back to life in honor of Alan's memory. As time passed, all of us who worked on the car became more and more dedicated to the exacting details. This restoration would be authentic in every detail!
Danny Cameron, who had been Alan's spotter and one of the team mechanics, acted as a liaison between me and the team. I kept a list of questions as they came up during the stages of the restoration, and Danny would get the answers. Once they became aware of what I was trying to do, all the guys on the #7 team wanted to see that the car was done right. This was the only real AK owned, Hooters sponsored car to be restored...and the fact that this was the Championship car made it that much more special to all of them. This was becoming a much bigger deal than Pam and I thought it was going to be. But, we knew that when it was finished we were going to be proud to show it anywhere.
During the body work phase, I worked on the car by day, Bill worked on it at night... and Alan's Chief Engine Builder, Danny Glad, helped me piece together the engine at Bodine's engine shop. The original plan was to build a typical showcar engine, consisting of a junkyard block and heads, and old race engine dress-up parts. Then, one day when I was working at the engine shop, I went out to lunch with the team members, and Gary Preziosi, who does testing and keeps the engine records, mentioned that the original engine block Alan had raced at Atlanta might still be around the shop.
Original Block & Heads
Gary Preziosi later told me the story of the motor. This was not the original motor the team planned to race in that Championship Atlanta race. This was the back-up motor. The original motor was used in a test session and, with a handful of laps left, it blew a connecting rod. There was a manufacturing flaw which would have been undetectable during the freshening up stage to make it race-ready...and had it been raced, it would have blown...and Alan's chances of clinching the Championship would have gone with it! So, the "back-up" engine was used instead...and that was the engine we were now going to put back into the car.
Alan's shop foreman, Jeff Buice, had put the decals on the car for the 1992 Atlanta Hooter's 500 race. He offered to do it again for us in November 1994, once the car was painted. The morning after the car was decaled most of the guys from Alan's old crew came over to see the car at Dave Rezendes' shop, where I had moved the car for the finishing touches. I hadn't thought about how much this project meant to the team, but, the emotion they all expressed was touching. To say that there might have been a wet eye or two just wouldn't describe it. Even the canteen truck lady sniffed back a tear as she ran her hand over Alan's name on the roof of the car. She recalled that the day that Alan won the Championship was one of the happiest days of her life. I was really proud when one of the guys said the car looked better than when they sent it to Atlanta for Alan.We couldn't put the engine in the car until the heads were taken out of service, so, after the car was decaled, I loaded it up on my trailer and brought it back to Daytona. I could do some of the detail work in our home garage. A year had gone by since we started the restoration, and at this point the car looked done... and probably could have been "shown"... but I wanted to wait until the drivetrain was finished. So, I kept plodding along with the details.
Among the pile of original parts for the car that Cal had put aside for us was the steering wheel, seat and seatbelts, and a glovebox. I hadn't known about Alan's glovebox, but, the other Winston Cup drivers knew about it, and used to kid him, because he always wanted to have a comb and his sunglasses ready at the end of each race. Bill Elliott didn't overlook that at the 1992 Awards Banquet when he jokingly presented Alan with a 'gold' comb!
The driver's seat was old and the upholstery was torn. I was going to keep it original, but, the more I learned about Alan from the team, and knew how fussy he was about his equipment, I decided to have it patched so it would look good. I took it apart and I could see where Alan himself had added roll bar padding scraps to make the seat more comfortable. When I picked up the seat foam, I was taken by surprise to find a small medal glued to the seat in the corner. It was an old worn-down St. Christopher medal. It gave me goose-bumps... to think that this was Alan's good luck charm... still in it's original place in his race seat. I thought that it might have sentimental meaning to Alan's family, so I called Cal to tell him of my discovery, and to ask him if I should send it to Alan's Dad. When I started to explain, Cal interrupted me and said, "...and you found a St. Christopher medal..." He went on to tell me that Alan would not drive a racecar without having a St. Christopher medal with him. Cal then told me a story that took place at a Charlotte race. Alan had qualified towards the rear of the top ten. It was Cal's job to do the last minute tucking in of the window net on pit row and as Alan was strapping in, he fished around for his St. Christopher medal and couldn't find it. He hollered to Cal over the roar of the engine, "Cal, I can't find my St. Christopher medal... there's one in my briefcase... do you know the combination? ...it's in the pits!" Cal said that everyone knew the combo... it was 7 7 7. NASCAR was waving the cars to start and they were rolling as Cal came running back to pit row and threw the medal to Alan in the car. At about 50 laps into the race Alan got into an incident and spun the car 360 degrees...he didn't hit anything. After recovering from the spin and getting himself sorted out, Alan got on the radio to Cal and said, "You see why I needed that medal?" After hearing that story, I decided that the medal belonged with the car... and it remains undisturbed... where I found it.
Back in Daytona, we prepared the 008 for her drivetrain. While Bodine's team was in Daytona testing for the 1995 Daytona 500 I had the opportunity to get more information to help in the detail of the car from Crew Chief Paul Andrews and Danny Glad. The time spent waiting for the engine phase was put to good use making several more changes, bringing the car closer to original. One detail that I learned was that Alan had a little Mighty Mouse on the racecar's dash that matched the one on his uniform. Another detail was that he always put a small stick-on clock on the dash so that he could tell what time it was during the race.
In June 1995, I loaded the camper, the trailer, the 008 car, and enough provisions for the duration, and told Pam I was heading North to Charlotte to stay until the drivetrain was done. Dave Rezendes was now the crew chief and part-time driver for the Bodine Racing Supertrucks and he let me stage the car in amongst the trucks in his shop. I really had to wait my turn to get the help I needed from the engine crew now. We were in the middle of a race season and these guys were extremely busy trying to bring us...the race fans...an exciting racing effort!
Danny Glad made arrangements for Craig Hibdon, one of the engine builders, to help me assemble the engine. Craig is a real meticulous guy, and did a heck of a job.
Piston Heads Milled
Well, persistence prevailed and I got the drivetrain in. By this time Dave Rezendes had really begun to pay close attention to what I was doing. He became more of a stickler for authenticity and detail that I was! Among many other things he insisted I do over again, was to change every oddball nut and bolt I had sneaked into the car to the Bowman brand... I mean every nut and bolt... Dave set the car up for me and said, "Well, go drive it and see if it'll run". I'm a graduate of Fast Track Driving School, and would love to have test-driven it myself first...But I told him to drive it, because he knew what it was supposed to feel like. And, I didn't. If you're not familiar with the Charlotte complex, there are roads all around the back of the track where the shops are located. Dave warmed it up and disappeared. I couldn't see him but I sure could hear the car. He brought it back in about 20 minutes and said, "Larry, the car's good for at least a 100 (MPH) parade lap. You need to put in a softer set of brake pads (she doesn't want to stop). Now let me help you load this car so you can move back home!"
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After the fundraising events were over, we were invited by the Milwaukee Mile to do a parade lap at the Busch Grand National race the following day. This was the most exciting and emotional part of the week. I fired up the "UNDERBIRD" in front of about 35,000 cheering (yet teary-eyed) race fans.. and drove amidst thunderous applause...a "Polish Victory Lap", in Alan's honor. That one lap made all the money, and all the work, and all the time put into this car worthwhile!
Pam and I had hoped to be able to bring the "UNDERBIRD" back to some of the Winston Cup tracks where Alan drove it into stockcar racing history. But, learning a little more about how NASCAR works, we realized that it is corporate sponsorship that makes this sort of thing happen...and, that since this car is privately owned, and not sponsored by Ford or Hooters or any other sponsor as it was when it was part of AK Racing, this might not happen. We feel that the car should be available to Alan's fans...so, we currently have the car on loan to North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame Museum in Mooresville, NC, where it can be viewed by race fans visiting this area. We hope the future of this car could include a permanent home in a setting that would allow it to be displayed as a fitting tribute to honor Alan Kulwicki's Championship spirit.
This was the story of the "Larry and Pam owned, fully restored, Alan Kulwicki Hooters Ford Thunderbird Championship #008 racecar, the "UNDERBIRD"! (We managed to get that all in... in one deep breath... just as the drivers do to please their sponsors when they get their few seconds in front of the camera during a race). We're proud to say that we were very fussy with this restoration...and that it is as authentic in as many details as was possible. We put the "UNDERBIRD" back to the way it looked on that day in Atlanta at the Hooters 500... The day Alan Kulwicki's dream came true... and he became a champion that race fans everywhere admired.
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