DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR fans old and new will tell you that Alan Kulwicki represented the best of old school tradition, while at the same time embracing the concepts of progress and hard work.
His NASCAR Cup Series championship career was simultaneously heralded by those watching his work, and especially appreciated by the people competing against him in the garage.
It was an unusual dichotomy of respect and awe.
While tragedy claimed his life in an April, 1993, plane accident the weekend of the Bristol, Tenn. spring race – a mere five months after the 38-year old won the sport’s grandest title – Kulwicki continues to inspire now just as he did then, in memory as in life.
His renowned work ethic, his much-celebrated independent nuance and the fantastic story of one of the greatest championship runs in the sport makes him an enduring and important part in NASCAR history.
All of that will be celebrated on Feb. 1 when Kulwicki is formally inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside team owners Roger Penske and Jack Roush, the late Davey Allison and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
Kulwicki, a hard-nosed late model racer from Wisconsin, was a man who bridged eras and expectations. As with many competitors who preceded him, Kulwicki worked on his own cars, pulling into the garage after driving laps on track, then jumping out of the driver’s seat and going under the hood.
He also realized the growing importance of succeeding on the buttoned-up corporate side of things, how to attract sponsorship and just as crucially, how to optimize and retain it.
All of this was tied together by the fact he was an incredibly talented competitor, whose intelligence and drive took him to the highest level of his sport on track. The Hall of Fame recognition rightly places his legacy alongside the most celebrated people in the sport.
“From the very get-go when he was nominated [for NASCAR Hall of Fame consideration] in 2015, I said, ‘it’s gotta be his year sooner or later,’ and I’ve been saying that ever since,” said Tom Roberts, a longtime Kulwicki publicist and friend.
“I think it took time to really educate the voters as to how special and how incredible what Alan was able to achieve was,” Roberts continued. “So many times I’d been in discussions just relative to his overall statistics. When you look at it from that perspective, it may not be the very best. But when you consider not what he did, but how he did it, is what accentuates how incredible it was.”
In some ways, Kulwicki ultimately won that 1992 premier series championship in the same sort of dramatic circumstance that produced his very presence at the sport’s highest level.
Six drivers showed up for the 1992 Atlanta Cup Series finale eligible to hoist the big trophy, including five-race winner Davey Allison – who won that year’s Daytona 500 – and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, who had won four straight races (at Rockingham, N.C., Richmond, Va., Atlanta and Darlington, S.C.) earlier in the season.
Kulwicki was a bona fide contender too, but definitely not the odds-on favorite.