JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — On April 1, 1993, tragedy struck the Tri-Cities and auto racing world when NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki and three others died as their plane crashed while flying in for the race at Bristol.
In the darkness of night, the plane went down in a field a few miles from Tri-Cities Airport, claiming the lives of Kulwicki, Hooters executives Mark Brooks and Dan Duncan, and the pilot, Charlie Campbell.
The four were flying to the Tri-Cities from Knoxville, where Kulwicki had made an appearance for his main sponsor, Hooters, ahead of the Food City 500.
The NTSB determined that the plane had encountered icing, which caused a loss of power and ultimately the crash. The NTSB said the pilot failed to follow procedures for icing.
The crash sent shockwaves through the NASCAR community in one of the darkest moments in the sport’s history.
Thirty years later, the crash and Kulwicki’s story — one of a man who proved to be a true outlier in the sport — have not been forgotten.
Rise to the Top
Before he raced in NASCAR, Kulwicki, a Greenfield, Wisc. native, cut his teeth on local short tracks like Slinger Speedway. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with an engineering degree, he moved up to a prominent proving ground for prospective NASCAR drivers, the American Speed Association (ASA).
Then, in 1985, he put everything in a pickup truck and headed to Charlotte to race in NASCAR. After initially driving for Bill Terry’s team, Kulwicki purchased the team.
In 1986, he started running the full Cup Series schedule and was named Rookie of the Year.
His first win came two years later at Phoenix in the Checker 500, but it’s what he did after the checkered flag waved that gained the most attention. During the cooldown lap, Kulwicki did a U-turn and drove around the track in the opposite direction.
The move would become known as a “Polish victory lap.”
Kulwicki started the 1991 season without a sponsor, but after a few races earned a sponsorship from the restaurant chain Hooters. He started on the pole four times that season and earned his second trip to victory lane by winning the Bud 500 at Bristol.
Video: Alan Kulwicki wins the 1992 Food City 500 at Bristol (courtesy of NASCAR Productions)
In 1992, Kulwicki claimed two more victories — at Bristol and Pocono — and remained a top contender in the points battle. But with the season winding down, disaster struck at Dover.
“I guess the lowest of lows during the ’92 season was when we got to Dover in September, and for no fault of his own, winds up going through three different race cars and crashes out of the race,” said Tom Roberts, a close friend of Kulwicki’s who ran public relations for him.
After starting on the pole, Kulwicki finished 34th.
Going into the race, Kulwicki was third in points with just 164 separating him from leader Bill Elliott. But afterward, he slipped to fourth place and 278 points behind with just six races left.
According to Roberts, Kulwicki sounded “deflated” after the race, but he never admitted defeat.
Things worked in Kulwicki’s favor in the five races that followed as Elliot’s point lead evaporated after a few bad finishes. Meanwhile, Kulwicki logged three top-five finishes and two just outside the top 10.
By the time the final race rolled around, the Hooters 500 in Atlanta, just 30 points separated Kulwicki from the new points leader, Davey Allison.
The race was already going to be one for the history books. It was Richard Petty’s last race (and Jeff Gordon’s first) and six drivers had a mathematical chance to win the championship: Allison, Kulwicki and Bill Elliott, along with Harry Gant, Kyle Petty, and Mark Martin.
Among those in the broadcast booth that day was Ken Martin, NASCAR’s current director of historical content.
“As the race unfolded, it boiled down to a battle between Alan and Bill Elliott,” Martin said.
Elliott won the race and Kulwicki finished second, but Kulwicki led for 103 laps, one more than Elliott’s 102. Bonus points for leading the most laps provided enough margin to put Kulwicki 10 points ahead and make him the 1992 Winston Cup champion, becoming the first college graduate to win the championship.
“I had the opportunity to be in the broadcast booth at Atlanta that day in November of 1992 and really, so many people judged that as the greatest race in NASCAR history,” Martin said.
And staying true to form, Kulwicki celebrated with a “Polish victory lap” around the track after winning the title.
He was now on top of the stock car racing world.
As Kulwicki saw more success in the Cup series, he received offers to join other, bigger teams.
“The big one was Junior Johnson wanted him to come race for him, and he entertained the offer,” Roberts said.
But through the end, Kulwicki stayed with the team he built.
“I think Alan saw it, entertained the thought, but then realized that he had maybe gotten that far on his own and then questioned himself as to how he could thrive in an environment like that, of not being in total control,” Roberts said. “And I think that’s what led him to deciding, you know, he was going to continue doing it his way, to being the independent guy that was in total control of every facet of his team.”
‘A Great Friendship’
Tom Roberts’ and Alan Kulwicki’s paths crossed in 1982 when Roberts was doing public relations for Nashville International Raceway, now known as Nashville Fairground Speedway. Roberts was writing driver profiles for the upcoming American 400, an American Speed Association (ASA) race, and Kulwicki was among the drivers who had entered.
Roberts wrote a press release profiling Kulwicki, and while he had heard about him from people like ASA co-founder Becky Robbins, he had yet to meet him in person. He had met his dad, though.
“It was something like: ‘Kulwicki, soon to be a household name,'” Roberts said, describing the headline he wrote for the release. “And the gist of what I wrote was based on statistics, you know, from his career, conversations that I had had with Becky Robbins, and a little bit actually from his dad.”
His write-up was picked up by several racing publications. Kulwicki read it and gave Roberts a call. He introduced himself and asked Roberts why he wrote that.
“It’s like whoa, ‘this guy just introduced himself and he throws a question like that to me.’ I honestly at first didn’t know, is this guy mad at me or what?” Roberts said.
But Kulwicki wasn’t mad.
“He couldn’t understand why I would like, sing his praises and paint such a big positive picture, when I had yet, we had yet to meet face-to-face,” Roberts said.
The two did meet face-to-face at a barbecue before the American 400. Suffice it to say, the first in-person encounter went well.
“So we compared notes and just struck up just a great friendship that night,” Roberts said.
Roberts ended up leaving his job in Nashville and became the public relations person for Miller Brewing Company and its sponsored drivers, which in the years that followed, would include Bobby Allison, Dick Trickle, and Rusty Wallace.
When Kulwicki moved to Charlotte to race in NASCAR, Roberts became his spokesperson as well.
Kulwicki was known for his dedication, focus, and hands-on style of managing his race car and team, and he didn’t like it when things interfered with that.
Sometimes, that meant Roberts had to “clean up” misunderstandings or wrong impressions, like if a member of the media felt that Kulwicki had blown them off.
“But they just had to understand, and sometimes it was extremely difficult because he was so dedicated and focused and spent so much time personally on the car,” Roberts said.
Kulwicki wasn’t stuck up, Roberts said, he was just all business while at the racetrack. He even carried a briefcase.
“That was his place of business,” Roberts said.
Both Roberts and Kulwicki were busy men, but they made time each week for a phone call. It was more than just a business call.
“We talked about what happened the weekend before, we talked about the upcoming week. It was where I was able to get my information [to] write his advance news releases for the next race. And it was also an opportunity to discuss anything that he wanted to personally.”
Roberts was supposed to be on the plane with Kulwicki, Mark Brooks, Dan Duncan, and the pilot Charlie Campbell.
Roberts had said he’d be at the Knoxville Hooters appearance with Kulwicki in the hours before the crash.
“When we had conversed on that Tuesday, he was under the thinking that I was going to be at the appearance and in Knoxville that night,” Roberts said.
Instead, Roberts decided to give Kulwicki some alone time with the Hooters brass to discuss concerns Kulwicki had.
“It was my gut instinct that they needed to be together and that they could, maybe that would allow them the time that Alan could voice his concerns and there could be some great dialogue and perhaps they could figure out answers to whatever problems,” Roberts said.
After getting into town, Roberts checked into the Johnson City Sheraton and headed for the bar, where he expected to eventually link up with Kulwicki, Brooks, Duncan, and Campbell.
It was there that he found out there had been a plane crash.
“We all loaded up and went to the FBO (private jet terminal) out at Tri-Cities Airport, and one by one communicating with team members,” Roberts said. “One by one, Alan’s team guys came out and it was like waiting to find out, I guess you could say, the bad news. Hoping for the best, praying for the best, but just waiting for details.
“And it was probably two o’clock in the morning when the sheriff comes and gathers all of us in the manager’s office at the FBO and gives us all a vivid description of the crash scene. You know, I think it just put us all in shock, not really knowing what to do because…none of us had ever encountered anything like that. It was like your biggest nightmare.”
The day after the crash, Roberts went to the speedway where he served as an information source on what had happened.
“I had a job to do and it was to represent Alan and to be a professional regardless of what, you know, what you’re up against,” he said.
When WJHL interviewed Roberts following the crash, he said Bristol had been one of Kulwicki’s favorite tracks.
Roberts spent the day inside the speedway office and didn’t even realize that Rusty Wallace, who he also did public relations for, had won the pole for Sunday’s race.
Under the rules back then, the defending Cup Series champion got to pick their pit stall before everyone else, but in light of the tragedy, NASCAR had to alter the rules, Roberts said.
“They decided to go by virtue of qualifying,” Roberts said, which meant Wallace got the first pick instead.
“Rusty and Alan were big, big buddies on the circuit and had tremendous respect for each other,” Roberts said.
The two had raced against each other in the ASA series, and Wallace had supported Kulwicki on several occasions during his NASCAR career, including helping him land a sponsorship and putting him together with crew chief Paul Andrews.
Wallace and Kulwicki had different personalities, but as Roberts put it, it was the mutual respect between the two that let their relationship grow.
Roberts pointed to television commercials that the two did together.
“I think that it really illustrates two vastly different personalities who loved each other.”
The Race Must Go On
After the plane crash, Kulwicki’s team packed everything up and put it back on the hauler. And in one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history, Kulwicki’s hauler, with a wreath attached to the grill, departed a rainy Bristol International Raceway.
“The sense of sadness that was felt at Bristol that weekend was palpable,” Ken Martin said. “I don’t know if there’s ever been a sadder racetrack on Friday.”
Two days later, Rusty Wallace led the field to the green flag for the Food City 500, and 500 laps later, took the checkered flag to win the race.
He then turned his car around and did a Polish victory lap.
“To me it was like Rusty was on a mission that day, to win one for Alan,” Roberts said.
In victory lane, Wallace told Roberts something along the lines of “mission accomplished.”
Despite his relatively short career in NASCAR, Kulwicki left his mark on the stock car racing world.
“For our Southern-based sport, for this driver from Wisconsin to come down and teach us all a new way to race, but also teach us about you know, tenacity and engineering and all of the things, I think it really helped open up the sport to possibilities and, you know, again, we owe Alan a great debt of gratitude,” Martin said.
Thirty years after his passing, Kulwicki’s legacy lives on in large part thanks to Tom Roberts, who has made it his mission to educate newer generations about Kulwicki.
One way he does that is through the Kulwicki Driver Development Program, which he heads. Every year, seven drivers are selected to compete for the Kulwicki Cup with the winner receiving nearly $55,000. Each of the seven finalists gets $7,777 stipends (a reference to Kulwicki’s No. 7 car) along with networking, marketing, and sponsorship assistance.
“It’s worked to educate more generations as to who Alan was, what he stood for and there’s there’s great pride that exists today in doing what Alan did,” Roberts said.
In 2019, Kulwicki’s legacy was further cemented by his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
“I think it became really a goal of mine to see him in the Hall of Fame, which, you know, from the standpoint of him, only won in five races during the course of his career, it was quite the accomplishment for that to occur,” Roberts said.
Kulwicki continues to be honored in other ways too. A section of grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway bears his name, adjacent to sections named after other NASCAR legends like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, and David Pearson. Both the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Carolina have scholarships named after him.
He will also be honored at the upcoming Food City Dirt Race at Bristol. NASCAR plans to air a special segment prior to the race featuring Tom Roberts, Kulwicki’s crew chief Paul Andrews, and other “Kulwicki-ites.”
Hooters will also unveil its “night owl” paint scheme on the No. 9 car, which will be driven by Josh Berry.
Hooters issued a statement ahead of the anniversary of the plane crash:
As we approach the 30th anniversary of Alan Kulwicki’s passing, we at Hooters reflect on the unforgettable moments that Alan brought to our brand and our guests. From celebrating together in victory lane for the first time at Bristol in 1991 to winning the Winston Cup Championship in the Hooters No. 7 Hooters at Atlanta the following year, Alan’s on-the-track heroics allowed Hooters, our guests and Alan’s fans to have the ride of our lives. A ride we sadly wish would’ve never ended. We not only lost Alan but our friends and colleagues Mark Brooks, Dan Duncan and Charlie Campbell. As the No. 9 Hooters Night Owl makes its season debut at Bristol Motor Speedway a week after we remember their passing, we hope for nostalgia in Bristol’s victory lane one more time.Hooters statement
A moment at NASCAR’s annual banquet epitomized Kulwicki’s independent approach to life and the sport.
For his theme song, Kulwicki picked “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, an appropriate selection for a man known for doing things his way.
According to Roberts, getting the rights to use the song came with a hefty price tag and organizers wanted to use Elvis’ version instead.
“I said, ‘No, please! He told me it had to be Sinatra,'” Roberts said.
A day before the event, it was confirmed the Sinatra version would be used.
As if foreshadowing what was to come, the lyrics go:
And now the end is here“My Way” by Frank Sinatra
And so I face that final curtain
My friend I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more
I did it, I did it my way
A few months later, NASCAR lost a champion and rising star, and Tom Roberts lost a close friend.
Alan Kulwicki was 38 years old.