Wheels of fortune
Kulwicki reigned supreme on a day when NASCAR's history took a right turn
By DAVE KALLMANN
For the first time, a college-educated engineer - Alan Kulwicki, a Northerner from Wisconsin, no less - would ascend to the championship in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, a stock car circuit beginning to burst out of its base in the small towns of the Bible Belt.
To do so, this ultimate underdog would have to prevail in the tightest title race ever over local favorite Bill Elliott, a red-haired Georgia boy with the thick-as-grits drawl, and sentimental choice Davey Allison, an aw-shucks Alabama legacy who'd survived a tumultuous year to enter the finale with the lead in the standings.
At the same time, fans had gathered to witness an aging king abdicate his throne. One night before, 50,000 people attended a party in honor of Richard Petty, a warrior whose name had become synonymous with his sport. On this day, 165,000 would watch as, after 35 years and 1,177 rides, Petty climbed out of his chariot, forever.
What the fans could not realize at the time was that as they witnessed one great star flicker and fade, the brightest of the next generation would come to life.
An inauspicious start, shortened by a concrete wall, gave only the slightest glimpse into how far a California-born, Indiana-reared sprint-car racer named Jeff Gordon would ride NASCAR's cresting wave over the next decade.
"Huge," said Elliott, pausing as he rarely does to reflect on the historical significance of the race he won that afternoon.
"It was a big day."
And a fitting end to a crazy season.
From the time Petty gave the command to "crank 'em up" from the driver's seat in his last Daytona 500, his final tour would serve as a sub-plot at every racetrack. But The King, a seven-time champ and the all-time victory leader, was not the only story that year.
The exploits of Allison, alone, could fill a book. He won Daytona but soon afterward, his grandfather, Edmund "Pops" Allison, succumbed to cancer in April. He was then battered by three vicious crashes and, in August, his younger brother, Clifford, was killed in a racing accident.
Still, the beaten-up Allison found comfort in his racing, and when he won the second-to-last race of the year in Phoenix, he slipped past Elliott to the top of the standings for the first time since July.
Elliott, driving for the legendary Junior Johnson, had steadily built his points lead, and considering how his rivals were struggling, he appeared to be in a great position to cruise to a second series title.
Kulwicki, the owner and driver for a team half the size of Allison's or Elliott's, took a big hit in September when he wrecked two cars in Dover, Del. The crashes, at the same track where he'd crashed three times in June, dropped Kulwicki to fourth in the standings, 278 points back.
But Elliott self-destructed over the next five events, with engine failures in two of those races, a broken sway bar in another and an evil-handling car in a fourth.
When the series arrived in Hampton, Ga., south of Atlanta, just 40 points separated Allison, Kulwicki and Elliott. Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin, remained as long-shot contenders.
Although Kulwicki had climbed back to second, 30 points behind Allison, the media spotlight focused on Allison and Elliott. Not only had they been the top two for much of the season, they also more closely fit the NASCAR mold. Kulwicki's small, tight-knit crew was too busy working to feel the nerves.
Still, Kulwicki acknowledged his role in the chase when he received permission from Ford brass to cover the "T-H" on the nose of his white and orange No. 7 "UNDERBIRD" for the season-ending Hooters 500.
If Allison finished fifth or better in the race, nothing his challengers could do would wrest the cup from his grasp.
Kulwicki, Elliott and everyone else wanted to get to the front. Not only did they need to finish ahead of Allison, but also, under NASCAR's scoring system, bonus points were available for leading the race, five to anyone leading a lap and five more for leading the most laps.
Also, one is not likely to be involved in an accident that happens behind him. Sure enough, 40 seconds into a 4-hour afternoon, the first crash occurred when Rick Mast and Brett Bodine spun at the front of the field.
Allison's car caught some minor damage in the melee, and he dropped back a bit as Elliott and Kulwicki edged forward. But the second pit stop, a quick, two-tire change, enabled Allison to lead and collect the five bonus points, just as Elliott and Kulwicki already had.
Meanwhile, Kulwicki risked losing ground with every stop for service. When he downshifted to enter pit road the first time, first gear exploded, and his crew had to push him out after every stop.
Still, the championship battle raged. As Elliott and Kulwicki and Allison swapped positions, so changed the points lead.
Then, suddenly, on the 253rd lap, the computations simplified. As Ernie Irvan drove into Turn 4, a tire on his Chevrolet deflated, and the car shot sideways. Irvan slid across the track, smacking the nose of Allison's Ford and sending it into a spin on the front stretch.
One second Allison had been racing in fifth, which would have given him the title, and the next his day was essentially done. Allison gracefully waved to the crowd, spoke to television and returned after extensive repairs to finish 27th.
As the championship went on without him, excitement peaked in the Elliott and Kulwicki pits. And so did the pressure.
"After Davey had his crash, after our transmission broke, it's like, 'Oh boy, now what? Now what?' " said Peter Jellen, Kulwicki's gasman and truck driver.
With the two drivers so close in the points, the title could come down to one position or bonus points.
Kulwicki led at the time of Allison's wreck, and if he could hold the spot until Lap 311, he would be guaranteed to lead more laps than Elliott. To get there, though, he'd have to chance a 67-lap run between gas stops and then take on enough fuel in a quick "splash-and-go" stop to make it to the end.
"When Alan said, 'Hey, don't run me out of gas,' there was pressure there, because if we lead an extra lap we can win," Jellen said.
"If I messed up or that guy messed up, he's got to live with himself. You really think, 'Oh, my God, I may never get here again.' "
Elliott took the lead through the stops, but it did not matter. Crew chief Paul Andrews told Kulwicki to hold on to second rather than risk running out of gas while chasing the leader, and when Kulwicki reached the checkered flag some 8 seconds behind Elliott, he finished the year with a 10-point advantage.
Their battle remains the closest finish in a Winston Cup points race. Had the bonus points swung in Elliott's favor, the two would have finished in a dead heat and Elliott would have won the tie-breaker with more victories.
Kulwicki celebrated with the same opposite-direction "Polish Victory Lap" that he'd introduced after his first triumph in '88. He praised his crew, thanked his sponsors and quoted Vince Lombardi, a hero from his youth.
"I'm just a little guy who moved down here from the Midwest," he said that evening. "I wasn't a good old boy. I wasn't a millionaire. A lot of people said, 'You're crazy. You're nuts.' I just said, 'We'll see.' "
After hours of interviews, Kulwicki said he needed only two things: a bratwurst and a back rub.
Instead, he enjoyed champagne.
Elliott played the gracious runner-up, saying that the season sweep at his home track seemed worth a million bucks, just like the championship. He speaks of the race now as he did then.
"I've still got some pretty good remembrance of it," Elliott recalled. "We did everything right that day. We obviously lacked a little bit in leading all the race, yet had a good run. We did everything we could do, and he did everything he needed to do."
Allison wondered what he and his team had done not to deserve a break at the end of a trying season. Then they consoled themselves by thinking about all they had accomplished despite the crashes and other distractions.
"That was a good year," recalled Robert Yates, Allison's car owner. "Daytona 500s carry you for a long ways. When we went from first to third, we had to remember Daytona to get through the night."
Petty was just relieved to finish his "Fan Appreciation Tour."
Although he did not have a competitive car, he still went out with a bang as his Pontiac burst into flames after he'd plowed into the back of Rich Bickle and Darrell Waltrip in an early multiple-car crash. He ended up 35th.
"It was just 'Huuhhhhhhhh! OK, now I can relax for a while,' " said Petty, who vividly remembers his wife, Lynda, and three daughters crying from both joy and sadness. "We worked to get to the end of the year, and when it got there, it was a relief to go ahead and say, 'That's it.' "
Meanwhile, a wide-eyed 21-year-old with a cheesy mustache had also crashed that day. But where Petty's road was ending, Gordon's had just begun. The fastest qualifier in the second round, he started 21st and ended up 31st after a wreck midway through the race.
"That particular day, it was just nervousness and excitement all at the same time," Gordon said 10 years, 61 victories and four championships later.
"I didn't think of it having anything to do with a milestone for the sport, at all. I just thought it was cool because I was making my first start in Winston Cup. I remember I didn't know if I had what it took, if I'd made the right choices in team and how that all was going to pan out."
Who knew what was in store for any of the players that day?
Kulwicki found himself overwhelmed by the media and sponsor demands placed on the champion. The parade of distractions frayed his nerves and kept him from paying attention to every detail on his car the way he always had.
The struggles lasted just 41/2 months, though. On April 1, 1993, a private airplane carrying Kulwicki and three other men crashed on approach to Tri-Cities Airport near Blountville, Tenn. All died on impact.
As the Winston Cup Series family shuffled through a spring and early summer without its champion, a second aviation accident dealt it another serious blow. Allison, piloting a helicopter he owned, lost control and crashed in the infield at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama and died from the head injuries he'd suffered.
The 1993 season couldn't end fast enough. But after it did, race winner Rusty Wallace and champion Dale Earnhardt lapped the Atlanta Motor Speedway clockwise - Polish Victory Lap style - carrying flags bearing Kulwicki's No. 7 and Allison's No. 28.
Since they've been gone, the Winston Cup season has expanded to include stops in California, Texas and the American racing capitol, Indianapolis, and a schedule that has grown to 36 races.
Fox and NBC have replaced ESPN as the networks of choice. When the 2002 season concludes this weekend in Homestead, Fla., either Martin or Tony Stewart will earn $3.75 million as champion, nearly four times what Kulwicki took home.
Earnhardt died in the 2001 season-opener after winning seven titles, like Petty, and dominating from the mid-'80s through mid-'90s. Now, his son, Dale Jr., has emerged as a star, alongside Gordon and another Indiana boy, Stewart.
Half of the past 10 championships have been won by drivers who grew up in the Midwest, and it's been a decade since the last rookie of the year came from the Southeast. Drivers under 35 years old seem poised to take over NASCAR.
"The people who are really kind of carrying the sport today, you hadn't heard tell of 10 years ago," Petty said. "They might have been racing bicycles or go-karts or something, but they weren't in the national spotlight."
Not even Gordon.
Followers of sprint and midget racing around Indiana knew his name, and he'd shown some talent in the Busch Series. Gordon emerged, however, as the most successful Winston Cup driver in the past decade and far and away the richest the sport has ever seen.
Although Petty and Gordon raced together just once and no one could have realized it at the time, in retrospect, it appears that a torch was passed.
"I don't look at it that way, and I certainly didn't look at it that way then," Gordon said. "I was just a punk kid, coming into the sport and trying to win races and be competitive.
"I look at it as, The King, wow, you know . . . all he's done . . . he's the man, and that was his last race. To me, if you pass the torch, you're passing it to an equal, and I don't really look at myself that way."
That's how the sport changes. The next milestone? History will reveal it.
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