December 14, 1954 – April 1, 1993
1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Champion
5 NASCAR Cup Wins
1986 NASCAR Cup Rookie of the Year
How do you define a champion? Is it by the number of races a driver wins? The legacy they leave behind? Or is it the desire, dedication, and determination of the driver? Alan Kulwicki defined a champion his own way. Alan did not win often, turned down opportunities to drive for powerhouse teams, and ran with little to no factory support. Even with all of these obstacles, Alan still went on to win the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship driving for himself. It was Alan’s perseverance that earned him nicknames such as “Special K,” the “Polish Prince,” and maybe one of the most memorable, the “Underbird.”
Kulwicki grew up near the historic Milwaukee Mile in Greenfield, Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Kulwicki received a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. He raced at local short tracks while in college, and started to pursue auto racing as a professional career in 1980.
Kulwicki won the track championship at Slinger Super Speedway in 1977. At the same time, at Wisconsin International Raceway (WIR), he raced late models. At WIR he finished third in the standings as a rookie. In both 1979 and 1980, he won the track championship.
1979 also saw Kulwicki venture into ASA as well as the USAC Stock Car series. There, Kulwicki raced and competed with Rusty Wallace. Kulwicki never finished higher than third in the standings in ASA, a feat he accomplished twice, in 1982 and 1985. Over the course of Kulwicki’s seven years in ASA, he amassed five victories and 12 poles.
In 1984, Kulwicki started his first NASCAR race at the Milwaukee Mile. Kulwicki started second and went on to finish second. Kulwicki went on to score a top 10 at Charlotte and a top five at Bristol.
Kulwicki sold most of his belongings and moved to the Charlotte, North Carolina area in 1985. Kulwicki simply looked for an opportunity and for a ride. When Kulwicki couldn’t find one, he created one for himself.
In 1986, Kulwicki moved up to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series with team owner Bill Terry in the No. 32 Hardees Ford. About midway through the season, support for the team dried up, and Kulwicki formed AK Racing. Driving for himself, with only a single car, and only two full-time crewmembers, Kulwicki went on to win the 1986 Rookie of the Year honors.
1987 saw Kulwicki change from No.32 to the No. 7 he would become synonymous with. The 1987 also saw Zerex Antifreeze hop onboard to sponsor him. Kulwicki scored three poles that season, two at Richmond, and one at Dover. Kulwicki nearly got a taste of victory at Pocono Raceway, until Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed him on the final lap. The rest of 1987 was a season for Kulwicki to forget with 11 DNFS in 29 races.
1988 saw Kulwicki hire Paul Andrews as his crew chief, after a recommendation by his friend, Rusty Wallace. Late in the season, in the inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway, Kulwicki finally broke through and earned his elusive first victory. To celebrate after the race, Kulwicki turned the car around, and drove clockwise, the opposite direction of the traditional track layout. Kulwicki called the move “The Polish Victory Lap.”
1990 saw a new opportunity for Kulwicki as legendary car owner Junior Johnson asked Kulwicki to take over the No. 11 Budweiser car. Kulwicki turned down Johnson’s offer and continued driving for himself. Kulwicki scored his second career victory late in the season, at Rockingham Speedway. Kulwicki finished eighth in the points standings that season, after earning 13 top 10s in 29 races.
Just before the 1991 season was to begin, Kulwicki’s sponsor, Zerex, ended their support of his team. Yet again, Junior Johnson, offered Kulwicki a ride in his second car, with a $1 million dollar price tag. And, once again, Kulwicki declined Johnson’s offer. Kulwicki, then raced without sponsorship, paying the bill for this team himself. In the Daytona 500, Kulwicki represented the United States Army as one of five unsponsored teams that ran military colors to show support for the first Gulf War.
For the next two races, Kulwicki motored around the track in blank white, unsponsored cars. A stroke of luck happened for Kulwicki at Atlanta, where the Hooters restaurant chain wanted to be represented in their home race after the car they sponsored, driven by Mark Stahl failed the qualify. Hooters agreed to stay on after their initial one-race deal ended up with Kulwicki finishing in the eighth position. At the end of the season, Kulwicki was 13th in points, with a win at Bristol, four poles, and 11 top 10s.
Throughout Kulwicki’s career, he had been called a ‘control freak’ because of his insistence of micromanaging as much as he could. In 1992, Kulwicki’s micromanaging finally paid off. Early into the season, Kulwicki captured his fourth career victory, passing Dale Jarrett late in the race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Kulwicki jumped into the top five in points, a position he would not fall out of for the remainder of the season. Kulwicki went on to capture a second victory at Pocono Raceway later that season. No one expected Kulwicki to be able to maintain the consistency and be a contender for the championship.
At Dover, Kulwicki blistered the field, qualifying on the pole. However, Kulwicki’s luck in the race was short lived, as he crashed just 91 laps into the 500-lap event. The crash left him 278 points behind points leader Bill Elliott. Many, including Kulwicki, thought that this deficit would finally be his undoing. Kulwicki strove on, just barely losing the Charlotte race to Mark Martin. Meanwhile, Elliott, the points leader, struggled with mechanical issues, allowing the points to close up, and have a battle between six drivers by the time the series returned to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the season finale.
Entering the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, Davey Allison led Kulwicki by 30 points, with Bill Elliott 40 behind, Harry Gant 97 behind, Kyle Petty 98 behind, and Mark Martin as the final driver still in contention. The race also had an added buzz, as it was the final race of Richard Petty’s illustrious career, and the first Cup series race for the young, up-and-coming Jeff Gordon. Before the race, Kulwicki taped over the first two letters in Thunderbird, making his car the only ‘Underbird’ in the field, a nod to his status of being the underdog.
After the first pit stop, Kulwicki lost first gear, forcing him to stay in fourth gear, to prevent metal from the broken gear damaging the engine. Throughout the rest of the race, the pit crew had to push Kulwicki out of the box to help get him up to speed. Early in the race, Allison was involved in a multi-car pile-up that ended his title hopes. The accident handed the championship battle to both Elliott and Kulwicki. Throughout the race, both Elliott and Kulwicki traded the lead back and forth.
With Allison out of the race, Kulwicki had to lead the most laps and finish within sight of Elliott to ensure himself the Championship. To add to the drama, on the final pit stop, Kulwicki’s team was unsure that they had filled the tank with fuel on lap 309, after being scheduled to pit on lap 306. When Elliott pitted, Terry Labonte stayed on the racetrack, and lead two laps, preventing Elliott from leading the most laps. The extra three laps gave Kulwicki the five-point bonus for leading the most laps. Elliott went on to win the race, with Kulwicki finishing in second, but clinching the championship. Kulwicki celebrated his championship his way, by turning his car around for a “Polish Victory Lap.”
With his championship, Kulwicki became the first NASCAR Winston Cup Series Champion with a college degree, and the first from a Northern State. The championship battle came down to just a 10-point margin, the closest until the advent of The Chase in 2004.
Kulwicki said this to the media in victory lane that fateful day, “This is just the dream of a lifetime. I’ve been an underdog a lot in my career. That’s the way I want people to remember me. Maybe this will help some people that are dreaming about doing this to believe in themselves, and if I can do it, maybe they can too.”
Only four months later, tragedy took NASCAR’s defending champion. On the way to an airport near Bristol, Tennessee, for the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Kulwicki’s plane crashed on final approach, killing him and three others on board. Kulwicki’s team elected to withdraw from the race, the team’s hauler making one lap around the track in his honor.
After winning the race that weekend, Rusty Wallace honored his friend with a “Polish Victory Lap,” which Wallace would continue every time he won for the remainder of the season. At the 1993 Hooters 500, the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which Wallace won, Dale Earnhardt Sr. took home the championship, both Earnhardt and Wallace performed a “Polish Victory Lap.” Wallace carried a No. 28 flag to honor the late Davey Allison, and Earnhardt carrying a No. 7 flag to honor Kulwicki.
Today, Kulwicki’s legacy lives on. Every year, Slinger Super Speedway holds an Alan Kulwicki Memorial race. The grandstands and terrace in turns one and two at Bristol Motor Speedway are named after him. Kulwicki was posthumously inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2010 among others. Kulwicki’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, created a center honor in 2010.
In 2015, the Kulwicki Driver Development Program was founded to help support drivers pursue their dream. Also, in 2015, Kulwicki was one of 20 to be nominated to be eligible for the 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. Kulwicki remains on the ballot, eligible for the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.