Eighteen years ago today, an unthinkable tragedy occured. On approach to an airport in Johnson City, Tennessee, a plane plunged into the ground, killing all aboard. Among the dead: 1992 Winston Cup Champion Alan Kulwicki.
Alan was and remains regarded one of NASCAR's most inspirational figures. A true my-way-or-the-highway type, he turned down offers from top team owners to continue driving his self-owned No. 7 Fords, pursuing his dream of reaching the pinnacle of stock car racing on his own, aside from a few trusted employees.
Five months before his death, Alan did just that, claiming the Winston Cup crown over superstars Bill Elliott and Davey Allison, the latter of whom would die just three months after Kulwicki in another aviation accident. More importantly, his little self-owned team beat powerhouses Junior Johnson and Associates, Elliott's employer who had attempted to hire Kulwicki the prior two seasons, and Robert Yates Racing, for whom Allison raced.
Though Kulwicki never scored a Cup victory at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Hampton track played host to three significant, defining moments in the career of the Little Race Driver Who Could.
The first came in March of 1991. Alan's primary sponsor from the previous four years, Zerex Antifreeze, had left the team after the 1990 season. Alan, thinking he had a deal with Maxwell House Coffee to take over as sponsor of his No. 7 Ford, declined an offer from Junior Johnson to drive his team's No. 22 car. Instead, Maxwell House went with Johnson, signing on to sponsor Sterling Marlin and leaving Alan to begin the year without primary backing.
Not at all inclined to give up, Alan and his team took their unsponsored car to the first four races of the 1991 season. For the season-opening Daytona 500, he ran a camoflauged US Army-themed car as part of a military appreciation program NASCAR and RJ Reynolds, then the Cup Series' title sponsor through it's Winston brand of cigarettes, had created due to the Gulf War. After that, his Ford took on a nearly blank white-and-red paint scheme, save for the numbers and a large AK Racing logo on the hood.
The fourth race of the year was at Atlanta. Kulwicki, a master of qualifying during his all-too-brief career, beat all comers to snag the pole position, his third and final pole at Atlanta and one of his 24 career poles. More importantly, Mark Stahl failed to qualify, his fourth-straight DNQ to open the season. Sponsor Hooters, having failed start any of the first three races, struck a deal to put their decals on Alan's pole-winning Thunderbird. Though he led only eight laps, Alan recorded a solid eighth-place finish, his third top-ten in four races.
For the remainder of his life and career, Hooters decals were prominently displayed on Alan's race car.
His ultimate moment in racing, of course, is the 1992 Winston Cup title, which he claimed in the season-ending race at Atlanta. Entering the race 30 points behind Allison for the lead and ten ahead of Elliott for second, Alan deemed himself the underdog in the championship fight. With approval from Ford and NASCAR, he removed the TH from his car's THUNDERBIRD nameplate and replaced them with the perfect metaphor for the diminutive Wisconsinite: a Mighty Mouse sticker.
Allison was in command of the championship for much of the Hooters 500, a race often regarded as the greatest of all-time, not just for Alan's heroics but for it's standing in NASCAR history as the final race in Richard Petty's Cup career and the first for Jeff Gordon. However, with less than 100 laps remaining, he was involved in a crash with Ernie Irvan, giving the point lead to Alan. From there, Alan focused on leading the most laps, knowing that was likely the only way he would deny Elliott and Johnson.
Ultimately, the margin was a single lap, Alan's 103 laps led to Elliott's 102, but that one lap accounted for ten points: five that Alan got for leading the most laps, and five that Elliott didn't get. With Bill winning the race and Alan finishing second, both men scored 180 points. Alan's ten-point margin on Elliott entering the race held, giving him the unlikeliest championship in the sport's history and cementing the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup season as one of the greatest statements that any man, big or small, could achieve anything he truly dreamed of doing.
Less than five months later, the last chapter in one of the most inspirational sporting stories of all time was written when Alan Dennis Kulwicki perished in that Tennessee plane crash. To this day, however, one final image of the man who did it his way to the very end resonates for all who experienced his all-to-brief career.
In March 1993, the "Storm of the Century" gripped the East Coast. North Georgia was hard hit by a blizzard that dumped several feet of snow across the area. As fate would have it, that was the weekend that the Winston Cup teams were scheduled to race at Atlanta. Most teams packed their equipment up and hit the road, anticipating a postponement, but one remained.
Waist-deep in snow, wearing his white and orange firesuit and his racing helmet, Alan Kulwicki worked on his car along with his team, as though it were business as usual, until NASCAR finally called off the race. The following weekend, in his last start at the track that played the biggest role in his career, Kulwicki crashed out of the Motorcraft 500 and finished 36th.
For his career, he made 16 starts at the track, recording seven top-ten finishes. Six of those came in consecutive races, ending with his runner-up finish to Elliott in November 1992. He had three pole positions and four other top-ten qualifying efforts. While solid numbers, they are less impressive than the resumes put up at Atlanta by the likes of Elliott and Dale Earnhardt.
However, as is often the case in sports, the statbook doesn't begin to tell the story of what Atlanta meant to Alan Kulwicki's career, and what he meant to Atlanta. From gaining the funding that saved his race team to pulling off one of the greatest upsets in sports history to displaying his tremendous work ethic only a couple of weeks before his death, he was, and remains, an Atlanta Motor Speedway icon.