Friday, Alan Kulwicki will take his place posthumously in the hallowed halls of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The underdog from Wisconsin will be enshrined as a parallel of the all-time greats. The 1992 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was known for driving to the beat of his own drum. While numerous other drivers caved to drive for millionaire car owners, the Wisconsin-native was hell-bent on getting to the top in his own equipment.
But how bad did he want to win? How far would Kulwicki go to reach the top?
Warren Razore’s family legacy was trash. Literally. The Razore family business was a waste management company in Seattle, Washington. However, unlike the generations of men that came in the family before him, Warren had different tastes.
He craved speed.
In the 1980’s Razore dipped his toe into NASCAR racing. He started off as a sponsor for teams in the NASCAR Winston West Series (now known as the K&N Pro Series West), but that didn’t quench Razore’s thirst for racing. He wanted more.
In 1986, Razore began fielding a Winston West team himself, with Derrike Cope as his driver. Through six races, Razore’s No. 79 team captured three poles and contended for the win several times in the NWWS.
Razore, who was officially addicted, also had aspirations of owning a NASCAR Winston Cup Series team. Razore would move Cope with him to the Cup Series to run five races in 1986 in addition to their slate of West Series races.
In the team’s first Cup Series race, they scored a top-10 at Martinsville. It was a hell of a debut for a little West Coast operation.
In June, the team rolled into the ultra-fast Michigan International Speedway. They qualified a respectable 27th. The team lifted their car on jack stands and went off to grab a bite to eat. Dave Fulton, who was a member of the Razore team at the time, remembers a strange encounter when the crew returned to their car.
“Our rookie team out-qualified another rookie team by five positions. We left [our] car [stupidly] unattended [on] jack stands in garage [for a] few minutes to visit [the] concession stand. Came back, found competitor under our car on creeper,” Fulton recalled.
For those, who may not know, a creeper is a little flat padded plate basically with four wheels that you can lay down on to roll underneath a car or race car to better inspect the undercarriage.
That person who was laid out on their back under the No. 79 Ford Thunderbird on the creeper that afternoon was Kulwicki.
The man, who had earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1977 and had since turned into a race car driver, was trying to figure out how the young upstart Razore team had put a car together that out-qualified his car that was fielded by Bill Terry.
“The little sneak was lucky somebody didn’t bash his head in that June 1986 day in [the] Michigan garage,” said Fulton, still seething 33 years later. “Forgive me if I still think he was a little creep. We didn’t race that way. I detest sneaks and he was one.”
It may have been dirty and sneaky, but it proved to be a wise decision.
After starting deep in the field from the 32nd-position, Kulwicki climbed through the running order all day long to finish in 16th in the Miller American 400 at Michigan. Kulwicki also led the first lap of his Cup Series career in the race. Meanwhile, the Razore-owned team would come home 28th after suffering from a slew of problems during the race.
Kulwicki was just doing anything he could to find a way to get to the top of the NASCAR ladder.
A few weeks after the Michigan incident that Fulton recalled, Kulwicki purchased Bill Terry’s race team. He spent the rest of his career driving his own race cars. Kulwicki spent the rest of his career trying to discover and replicate the competitive advantages of his adversaries.
“He was consistently on the lookout for what people were doing,” said Bill Elliott of Kulwicki in his auto-biography Awesome Bill From Dawsonville. “I’ll never forget that before the Daytona 500 in 1987 he came over to my car and very boldly lifted my car cover and looked underneath. I was furious. It totally pissed me off. In no uncertain terms I told him to get out of there.”
Kulwicki wasn’t afraid to raise the ire of his competition if it meant he could unlock secrets as to how to make his own race car perform better.
So you’re probably wondering why is Kulwicki so celebrated? Why does he deserve to make it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. After all, it seems that he was a cheater.
Well, first off there was no rule against looking at other cars in the garage area to attempt to dissect and re-engineer what others were doing. It was just widely frowned upon by teams. Cheater? No. Guy who wouldn’t receive many Christmas cards? Yes.
However, whether it was illegal or not, in racing, if you’re not cheating or being dirty in some fashion or another then you aren’t trying to be the guy at the top.
Would Dale Earnhardt be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for his aggressive driving style, that many called dirty? Would Darrell Waltrip be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for the inventive [aka cheating] ways that Junior Johnson found to make his car faster than everyone else’s?
And so on, and so on down the list. Kulwicki is no different. Now, the driver who absolutely did things his own way will officially take his place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
*Huge tip of the hat to Dave Fulton for sharing his story from 1986. Another tip of the cap goes to Jay Coker for having the presence of mind to remember that Bill Elliott talked about Kulwicki spying on his car in his auto biography.
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Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.