Honor stirs up fond memories of Kulwicki

Last Updated: July 24, 1999
Gary D'Amato
Gary D'Amato
You tell yourself, when someone who made an impact on you dies, that you will think of that person often, that you will honor and cherish the memories as long as you draw breath.

But then the months and years go by, and life goes on. The memories you promised to cherish become less vivid, return to you less frequently, and finally slip into the crevices of your subconscious.

When I learned last week that Alan Kulwicki had been elected into the National Motorsports Press Association's Hall of Fame, I felt a twinge of guilt, for it had been some time since I last thought of Kulwicki.

Nearly seven years have passed since the Greenfield native stunned the auto racing world by winning the NASCAR Winston Cup championship on the last day of the 1992 season, by the slimmest margin ever.

More than six years have passed since Kulwicki died in a small plane crash near Blountsville, Tenn., his potential as racer and person forever unfulfilled.

Kulwicki would never know how many people he inspired by ignoring every convention, over coming all odds, hurdling every obstacle and destroying every stereotype to win the Winston Cup championship.

Northern boy in a Southern boy's game. Dad-burned college kid who got under the hood and fixed things. Man who read Thoreau and kicked ass at Daytona. Team owner, driver and chief bottle washer. A real Yankee Doodle Dandy, this one was.

He went about the business of racing Winston Cup cars as no one ever had. He wore three-piece suits to meetings with potential sponsors. He helped build his cars. He drove cleanly, smartly, but if Dale Earnhardt was going to try to knock him into the wall, he'd rub fenders all the way around the track.

People said he was aloof, and they were right. But on the night he was honored for his Winston Cup title in New York, Kulwicki was overcome with emotion as NASCAR played a video tribute to him, set to the song "My Way."

He sat there, tears spilling down his cheeks.

In January 1993, several dozen auto racing writers visited Kulwicki's team shop in Charlotte as part of a Winston Cup pre-season tour. It was two months after Kulwicki won the championship and three before he died.

The garage area was so clean, we could have eaten off the floor. Kulwicki sat in a chair and answered questions, but on the other side of a wall, a persistent hammering noise kept interrupting him. His crew was hanging sheet metal on a car.

Kulwicki instructed an aide to tell the workers to knock it off. Then he caught himself. He didn't want his crew standing around. That went against everything in which he believed.

"Tell them to keep working," he said, "but to pound quietly."

Vintage Kulwicki.

He was one of us, a Milwaukee kid who set unreachable goals and then reached them.

He is so richly deserving of his posthumous Hall of Fame induction. Perhaps, it will help keep the candle burning just a little brighter.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 25, 1999.

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