by Father Dale Grubba
Wisconsin in the 1960s and '70s was a hotbed of short track racing heroes and legends. Unique among them was Milwaukee's Alan Kulwicki. His goal, from early on, was to win a NASCAR Championship and he was unrelenting in his pursuit of it. "Some men see things the way they are and ask, 'Why?' I see things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'" he said in borrowing a visionary quote from Robert Kennedy.
What set him apart from other drivers was the course he set for obtaining his goal. Other drivers might be content with gaining valuable seat time or establishing themselves as the local hero. Not Alan. As soon as he felt he had learned all there was to be learned at a certain level he moved to the next. In Karting he set a Junior Reed (10 to 15 years old) record at Dousman, WI. in 1970. In 1972 he set a Senior Reed record at Dousman. He moved on to stock cars after graduation from high school in 1973. He won track championships at Slinger and Kaukauna, WI. In 1986 he announced his move south. Many thought he would return. "I've sold everything, I don't have anything to return to," was his response.
He endured many hardships that first year being an underfunded car owner against a much better team whose driver was Michael Waltrip. He motivated himself with a quote from Vince Lombardi, the famed Green Bay Packer head coach, "Obstacles are those things you see when you take your eyes off the goals." His logo became "Mighty Mouse." His single-vehicle operation was so "tough" against the bigger teams, he dubbed his car "Old Sirloin." After a season long struggle he was declared NASCAR's rookie of the year.
Kulwicki's next goal was to win a NASCAR race. It came in 1988 at the inaugural race at Phoenix. H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the legendary promoter at Charlotte Motor Speedway had coached him to be spectacular. The response was the "Polish Victory Lap," in which he circled the track backwards after winning.
Finally came the ultimate prize, the NASCAR Championship. Along the way he had offers to drive for various car owners, such as Junior Johnson. "People thought I was crazy when I turned him down," Kulwicki observed. "Perseverance, hard work, determination got me this far. I have invested too much. I don't want to always have to wonder if I could have done it."
By mid-season in 1992 the team, headed by Paul Andrews, had become cautiously optimistic and began packing extra parts for the "what if" scenarios that might occur. Later in the season the bottom dropped out at Dover. The team regrouped and entered the final race at Atlanta locked in combat with Davey Allison and Bill Elliott. The "Th" had been removed from the word Thunderbird on the front of Kulwicki's car. When it was over Davey Allison had crashed and Kulwicki led the most laps. Elliott won the race, Kulwicki won the championship by the narrowest of margins in NASCAR's history, ten points.
If the manner in which Kulwicki won the championship was unique so also was his personal life when compared to drivers of that era. "I am not the person you see at the track." On the domestic scene, he designed his own house and did a cooking demonstration with Benny Parsons. His musical taste ranged widely to almost anything but classical.
Always a businessman, he was seldom seem without a briefcase. Ever concerned about his image he dressed neatly and had a comb in his race car for grooming before stepping out after winning a race.
Those who knew him well enjoyed his rich sense of humor. He lived his religious faith. In his wallet, he carried a list of qualities the girl who would eventually marry him must have.
Other owner/drivers may win a NASCAR championship but none in the manner and with the flair of Alan Kulwicki.