Alan was one of those people who looked at the world differently,” said Father Dale Grubba, with a smile. “To be honest, I don’t know that anyone could accomplish the things that he did.”
Alan Kulwicki, the 1992 Winston Cup Champion and NASCAR legend, accomplished a tremendous amount in his short life. His fingerprint on the sport is still evident today. Kulwicki was the first college graduate to win stock car racing’s premier title, the Winston Cup Series Championship (now called the Sprint Cup Series). He was one of the first drivers to both own and drive his own team—opening the door for today’s drivers to do the same. He was the creator and first person to do the Polish Victory Lap—a reverse (clockwise) celebratory lap around a racetrack after a win.
Now, his legacy is a part of UNC Charlotte. In late 2009, the Kulwicki family made a gift commitment of nearly $1.9 million to support the Motorsports Engineering Program in the William States Lee College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Sciences. In addition, the University’s existing motorsports research laboratory will be named the Alan D. Kulwicki Motorsports Laboratory.
While his accomplishments on the track are well known, who he was as a person is often hard to discern. Perfectionist, brilliant, no-nonsense, loner, and misunderstood are just a few of the words that you will hear people use when they describe him.
“Well, there were two different sides of him. One was a real pain in the you-know-what,” said Humpy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, with a laugh. “He was a total perfectionist and sometimes could be completely without humor. Robin Williams wouldn’t even make him laugh.”
Paul Andrews, who served as crew chief for Kulwicki from 1988 until Kulwicki’s death in 1993, also remembers the two sides of Kulwicki’s personality. “Our personalities were completely different. Alan’s personality was very dry, very serious, but he definitely had a humorous side and a fun side.”
At the racetrack, Kulwicki was known to be very focused, very determined, and very serious. Father Grubba, author of Alan Kulwicki NASCAR Champion: Against All Odds and close, personal friend of Kulwicki’s, remembers the champion being bothered by the perception of him. “A lot of people never got to know him. When he was at the track he was total business and racing. One of the things that he would always say was, ‘People that see me at the track don’t really know who I am. When I’m away from the track, I’m totally different,’ and he was,” Grubba said.
Who was Alan Kulwicki off the track? Well, that is where Andrews, Grubba, and Wheeler can really tell some stories.
“I think the girls in his life were pretty comical. He was very, very particular with the girls he dated,” said Andrews.
Grubba also remembers Kulwicki and his girlfriends. “I saw Alan with this girl at one of the races, and she was this blonde. The next time I saw him I asked where that girl was. Alan said, ‘Well, she had a different interest in music than I did,’ and that was the end of that relationship. Then, you would see him with another girl, and you would ask about her. He’d say, ‘Well, she smoked five years ago, and she might start smoking again. I don’t want to be with any woman that smokes,’ and that would be the end of that.”
Because he usually did not have a sponsor, Kulwicki learned to be very careful with his finances. After winning the Winston Cup Championship, Kulwicki attended the NASCAR banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. “He was so used to saving money that he sent part of his crew out to buy booze at a liquor store across the street because the liquor in the Waldorf-Astoria was going to be sky high,” said Grubba.
“He would surprise you constantly,” added Wheeler. “For instance, my wife and I went out to eat with him one night before the Southern 500 at Darlington. We went to this restaurant, and they had this great selection of wines. Well, I had been around Alan for years. I had no idea! He opens up this cornucopia of knowledge of wines. I’m sitting there wondering how he could possibly know all this. He looks up at me like doesn’t everybody know this? He didn’t say it, but I knew what he was thinking. He introduced me to one of the greatest wines I’ve ever had in my life.”
There is no doubt that Alan Kulwicki was not only a talented, influential driver but also a very special person. Unfortunately, he never got to enjoy his championship or his success. After winning the championship in the fall of 1992, Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash in the spring of 1993. He was only 38 years old.
“I really just miss him being around. I miss his thoughts and his ideas and wonder where the sport would be if he was still here,” Andrews said.
“He would have been a great car owner,” said Wheeler. “He’d be a Jack Roush or a (Rick) Hendrick. He had exactly what it took to do that. He set a great example for a lot of people in a very short time. We’ll just never know what he could have been. But what he was, was enough.”
It is clear that these three gentlemen just miss their friend.
“The thing you miss most about Alan is that you meet some people in life, and it’s rare, but they’re just a little bit off kilter with the world. That makes them interesting for me,” continued Grubba.
“It’s called character, and he had it,” said Wheeler
*A very special thanks to Paul Andrews, Father Dale Grubba, and Humpy Wheeler for sharing their memories of Alan Kulwicki.ShareThis