The Daytona 500 is today. This 51-year old auto race has gone from “a bunch of guys racing their cars on a Florida beach” to “the seasonal kickoff event of one of America’s biggest sports.”
I’m what you could call a mid-level fan. I watch many races (on TV), have favorite drivers (Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and know a little about some of the tracks (Taladega is huge, Martinsburg is small).
And at one time I knew one of the drivers, Alan Kulwicki.
He was unique. A typical NASCAR driver is from the south, Alan was from Wisconsin. A typical driver works for a team and doesn’t own his car. Kulwicki was an owner-driver, ran his own team, and did much of his own design work because he was a mechanical engineer by profession. In fact, he was the first college graduate to win the Winston Cup Championship.
I knew him because the radio station I worked for in Milwaukee in the late 1970s was his sponsor during his early short track days. I saw him at races and promotional events and occasionally he’d call me from the garage where he and his buddies were listening to my radio show while working on his Camaro.
I lost track of him after I moved on to Texas to advance my career and he moved to North Carolina to advance his.
Kulwicki won NASCAR Rookie of the Year in 1986, won his first NASCAR race in 1988 and in 1992 he captured the Winston Cup Championship title. Early in the next season he was killed in a plane crash on the way to a race.
More Kulwicki trivia:
He called his Ford the Underbird because he was understaffed, under funded and under appreciated. He even got Ford to allow him to drop the TH from Thunderbird on the front of his car.
He did his victory lap backwards, starting with his very first NASCAR win, in what was eventually called the Polish Victory Lap.
His sponsor for the 1992 season was Hooters.
Here is a short Alan Kulwicki tribute video: