By Team Ford Performance Correspondent
(This is the latest in an occasional series on iconic Ford Performance drivers through the years.)
It was one of the most famous Thunderbird race cars in Ford Performance history, although it didn’t carry that name.
As he rushed toward the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 1992, Alan Kulwicki, with the approval of Ford officials, doctored the identification on his No. 7 cars to “Underbird”.
The name fit perfectly with Kulwicki’s unlikely march to stock car racing’s most coveted championship. Only a few years earlier, he had moved south from his Wisconsin home and the short-track success he had enjoyed in the Midwest to challenge NASCAR’s top teams.
In almost every aspect of the game, Kulwicki was an underdog – thus the Underbird moniker. He raced with a smaller team, fewer sponsorship dollars and technology that couldn’t match the wealthier operations.
Despite the handicaps, Kulwicki rallied in the final race of the 1992 season and won the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Kulwicki’s unlikely run to the top. Tragically, the Greenfield, Wisc. native had little time to enjoy his accomplishment. Only a few months after celebrating the championship, Kulwicki and three associates were killed in the crash of a private plane in Blountville, Tenn. on the way to the NASCAR race that weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kulwicki, who has been inducted into several Halls of Fames and has been a nominee for the NASCAR Hall, became the rare driver who fought the odds and won -- big. Although his early successes resulted in offers to drive for other teams – notably the powerhouse operation of Junior Johnson, Kulwicki decided to continue doing things “his way,” and that choice ultimately resulted in him realizing his big dream.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with an engineering degree, Kulwicki was intensely focused. He had his hands in every aspect of his team’s operation, and he found it difficult to “let go” and let others take care of preparation and problems.
“Everybody on the payroll had to be able to do a lot more than just work on a race car,” said Cal Lawson, the team’s general manager. “You had to be all in for him whatever it was.”
Team members put in long hours. Lawson remembered a day when a mechanic requested a day off from Kulwicki because the grass on his property had grown ridiculously high and he had to mow it. “So Alan sent the guy who cut the grass at the shop over to his house to cut his grass so he could stay at the shop and work on the car,” Lawson said.
Tom Roberts, Kulwicki’s public relations representative, said Kulwicki’s attitude came from his short-track days.
“It didn’t matter whether he was working on his ASA short-track equipment and had two volunteers or if he was working in a rental garage with two bays and two employees to all the way when he had the new shop and about 20 employees,” Roberts said. “It was the same thing – he was always on top of everything. He always knew what was going on. It was just the way he operated.”
Paul Andrews, the team’s crew chief, said Kulwicki, who often worked on his own race cars, slowly let his employees take bigger roles.
“We had only a handful of guys in the shop, but we hired more people over time,” he said. “It was hard. I worked on the cars hands-on, and he did, too. He would let just enough go at the time that we could get away with – a little bit this month, a little more next month. He didn’t want to let go of things. He enjoyed doing it.
“We built a good group of people around him. He had a lot of faith in that group. He eventually let people do it their way. It was challenging, but it worked out really well.”
The road to the championship wasn’t an easy one. A crash in the Sept. 20 race at Dover, Del. left Kulwicki 248 points out of first place in the driver standings with only six races remaining. The deficit seemed insurmountable, but Kulwicki and his Underbird team pressed on.
Over the next five races, Kulwicki finished no lower than 12th to stay in the hunt. Entering the final race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he trailed leader Davey Allison by 30 points. (In the pre-Chase era, the championship was decided by points accumulated over the entire season).
Allison crashed out of the race, leaving the title battle to Kulwicki and Bill Elliott. Kulwicki led much of the race, and the team decided early in the afternoon that it could be critical for their driver to lead the most laps, thus earning a five-point bonus.
In the end, their planning worked out. Before the last pit stop, Kulwicki stayed on the track an extra lap to lead the most laps. Although he finished second to Elliott in the race, his point total eclipsed that of Elliott, giving the Underbird the title.
It was a grand accomplishment for one of the sport’s smaller teams and a testimony to hard work and perseverance.
“What Alan taught me is how to do more with less,” said Tony Gibson, then the team’s car chief and now crew chief for Kurt Busch. “We were one of the underfunded teams in the series at that time. We won the championship on about $1.2 million that year. Dale Earnhardt had the largest sponsorship at $4 million.
“We would take wheels that we had wrecked and bent and we’d straighten them and use them again. We took used parts and used them over and over again. Brake rotors – we’d run them until they cracked so bad we couldn’t run them any more.”
In the end, there was a big payoff. Kulwicki and his guys made it to the top.