Cookson, KDDP Class of 2023 Honored at Awards Banquet
Dec 15, 2023
The Kulwicki Driver Development Program Awards Banquet Thursday evening at The Speedway Club at Charlotte Motor Speedway featured a roundtable discussion with members of Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 NASCAR Cup Series championship team, as well as Geoff Bodine. The discussion covered the team’s journey to the 1992 championship, as well as moving forward when Bodine acquired the team after Kulwicki’s tragic passing in 1993.
In many ways, Kulwicki’s team was a band of misfits, by their own acknowledgement. However, they had one common thread, a love for racing, that brought them together for what is still considered one of the greatest underdog stories in NASCAR history.
“[Kulwicki] hired racers. Everyone he hired was racers,” explained Peter Jellen. “We all had our own cars, Modifieds, Street Stocks, whatever. That’s what made that team. Everybody there was racers at one time or another.”
However, Kulwicki was a difference maker as both an owner and a driver. With his engineering background, Kulwicki is well-known for some of his innovations in the sport when it came to the process of setting up a race car.
Of course, that also helped during the course of a race weekend as well.
“We were the first ones with an engineer, and he was driving the car,” said Danny Cameron. “It doesn’t get any better than that. We beat guys a lot of times because you’d cycle your car three times in 45 minutes [of a practice session], and we’d cycle our car six times in 45 minutes.
“He knew what changes he wanted made. He’d be bringing the car in, we’d have the tools, the shocks, everything lined up, that car stopped, it went in the air, shocks came off, springs came off, everything went back on, car’s back on the ground, not a word was said and the car’s rolling again.”
Larry McReynolds, who hosted the roundtable discussion, was a competitor in 1992, serving as crew chief for Davey Allison during the iconic 1992 championship battle. However, even he acknowledged the grit and tenacity of Kulwicki’s team.
“I had a lot of skin in the game in 1992, from a different perspective,” said McReynolds. “This group right here, racing against them in 1992, even 1991 and 1993. You might go out there and out-qualify them. You might go out there and out-race them. You might out-point them, which nobody did in 1992. I can tell you first-hand, nobody was going to outwork this group right here.”
Just months after reaching the top of the mountain by winning the 1992 championship, however, the team experienced the lowest of lows. Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash on April 1, 1993, and the team lost its driver, owner and leader.
Gerry Kulwicki, Alan’s father, was tasked with keeping the team moving in his son’s absence. At first, Felix Sabates provided guidance and financial assistance, but they still sought someone to permanently acquire the team and keep them moving forward.
The frrontrunners to buy the team were Geoff Bodine and professional golfer Payne Stewart. Ultimately, Bodine was selected because he was a racer first and foremost, like Kulwicki and the members of his team.
“The way I understand the story, Mr. Kulwicki wanted a racer to take over the team, so they chose me,” said Bodine. “After Alan was killed, I had no idea of being a team owner. Everyone knew I was a hands-on driver. I always spent a lot of time with my teams.”
“We heard it was possibly Payne Stewart and Geoff,” added Jellen. “Nothing against Payne Stewart, God rest his soul, but he wasn’t a racer. Geoff was. Geoff’s record spoke for itself, whether it was the Modifieds, with Bud Moore, with Hendrick, whatever. Geoff could fit right in. We could plug and play, fit him right in.
“Payne Stewart couldn’t do that. He could pay the bills, but then you have to hire a driver and all that. Geoff could just jump right in and keep the ball rolling. If you got another guy in there, like a Payne Stewart, and had to start over, we probably would have failed.”
Bodine may have had doubts about his abilities or qualifications as a team owner at NASCAR’s highest level, but he had no such reservations about the team he was joining.
“When you buy a race team, what’s the most important part of a race team? It’s not the cars. It’s not the engines. It’s the people. Someone asked me, ‘When you bought the team, weren’t you afraid?’ Heck no. I bought the team. I bought winners. They were winners. I wasn’t afraid. I knew we were going to win eventually.”
Win they did, starting in 1994 in the Winston Select all-star race at Charlotte before winning three Cup Series points races that year. While the all-star race paid $250,000 to win, it also proved an emotional and important victory, and Bodine made sure to perform Kulwicki’s signature Polish victory lap after taking the checkered flag.
“To do the Polish victory lap, that was incredible,” said Bodine. “Now I know why Alan liked to do it. You’re here, the fans are there. You can hear them screaming, yelling. Everyone was standing up cheering. You’re waving out the window, you’re crying. It was quite emotional, first win for me as a team owner.”
Click here to watch an on-demand replay of the 2023 Kulwicki Driver Development Program Awards Banquet.
-Photo credit: Will Bellamy/Racing America