BRISTOL, Tenn. - Mention the name Alan Kulwicki and the first thing that comes to mind is how he bucked the odds and won the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship by the slimmest of margins over fellow Ford driver Bill Elliott.
As the newly-minted Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series prepares for the first of two visits to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, it’s appropriate to bring up the man who remains the last owner/driver to win the title because no track may have defined his career more than what is now called ‘The Last Great Colosseum.’
It’s where he won two of his five series races, taking consecutive 500-lap events in 1991 and 1992, and it’s also where the sport said goodbye as a grief-stricken community silently watched his team hauler circle the half-mile track and leave one day after the plane taking him to Tri-Cities Airport for the race that weekend crashed on approach, killing him and three others on April 1, 1993.
So what made Kulwicki so good at Bristol, where he made 14 starts and posted six top-5 and eight top-10 finishes?
“I think the short tracks were a favorite of Alan’s because of where he grew up,” said former Kulwicki team member and current Kurt Busch crew chief, Tony Gibson. “Places like Winchester were a lot like Bristol and it just fit his driving style. He loved that place. We were always really, really good and actually won the last asphalt race there before they made it concrete. I just think he was a short-track racer that grew up on some of those little high-banked, rough, really aggressive tracks. When we went to the short tracks like Bristol, Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Phoenix, and Richmond, he excelled extremely well.”
The statistics bear that out because in 62 starts at those five tracks, Kulwicki had three wins, 19 top-5 and 31 top-10 finishes.
“From a mental standpoint, I think that he knew if you could tackle and beat Bristol, you’ve really accomplished yeoman’s work there,” said Tom Roberts, who served as Kulwicki’s public relations representative. “He was never one to back down from challenges, so when that race was placed upon a pedestal of being the most difficult, the most challenging, that’s what Alan wanted to excel in.”
Kulwicki’s two Bristol victories came in opposite ways. In 1991, he found himself two laps down, but rallied back and led the final 137 circuits to win the Bud 500 for his third career victory. He made it back-to-back triumphs seven months later by dominating the Food City 500 in 1992, leading a race-high 282-of-500 laps and beating Dale Jarrett to the finish line by 0.72 seconds.
“You had to be aggressive, but, yet you had to be smart with your equipment. You could burn your tires off really easy and he was really good at managing his tires,” recalled crew chief Paul Andrews. “You can do a lot with a little there, but your car had to handle. That’s what was really good about Alan is he could do what he needed to do to make his car handle, even if that meant telling us what to do from the driver’s seat.”
Following that ’92 victory, speedway officials made the difficult decision to remove the asphalt due to increasing deterioration and became the first track with an all-concrete surface. The change was dramatic.
“They had a test there and when it was over Alan called me and he was very serious,” said Roberts. “He said he thought that the fillings in his teeth were gonna fall out because of how rough it was, but I just started laughing.
“In retrospect, anything like that only added to the challenge and added to the difficulty and, for Alan, that was just his cup of tea,” added Roberts. “He wanted to excel in the most difficult environment and I think that statement is synonymous with him all the way from the beginning of his career to when he won the championship.”
Since capturing the title almost 25 years ago, only three additional Ford drivers have managed to join him in a select group that includes Ned Jarrett, David Pearson, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. All of those, with the exception of Kenseth and Busch who are still active, are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Kulwicki is on the ballot this year, along with 19 others, and a decision on if he’ll be voted in as part of the 2018 class will be known in May.
“He deserves to be in there. For a guy that came from where he came from and did everything on his own with his own money and did everything his way, he deserves to be in there,” said Gibson. “Hopefully, he gets voted in, but, if not, he’s still a hall of famer in my eyes.”
In the meantime, Kulwicki’s legacy will continue to shine at Bristol, where Ford has 36 all-time wins and a portion of the grandstands are named in his honor.