The Alan Kulwicki 1992 Championship Team: The Rest of the Story
After Alan Kulwicki’s tragic death, most people who knew him moved on with their lives following his funeral; however, that wasn’t the case for his team’s members who had lost their leader.
(NOTE: RacingAmerica.TV will feature an exclusive live broadcast of Thursday’s 2023 Kulwicki Driver Development Program’s Awards Banquet. In addition to honoring the KDDP Class of 2023, members of Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 NASCAR Championship Team will gather to recount the “Rest of the Story!” Renowned Fox Sports broadcaster Larry McReynolds will lead the “roundtable” discussion and will be joined by NASCAR legend Geoff Bodine to add the finishing touches to one of the most compelling stories in racing history.)
After Alan Kulwicki’s tragic death in an April 1, 1993, plane crash, most people who knew him moved on with their lives following his funeral; however, that wasn’t the case for his team’s members who had lost their leader.
Less than five months earlier they were the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup champions, celebrating their Cinderella story at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. Now they were surrounded by uncertainty and despair. Everything revolved around Kulwicki’s decisions and now he was gone.
“That period was the toughest period of my entire life,” says Cal Lawson, who was the team’s manager. “I felt like our team was coming apart. People were wanting things that were tough to give them. For about 90 days, everything (financial assets) was frozen.”
Lawson often paid for things from his personal account, including the crew members per diem for various races, before Kulwicki’s money was released and Kulwicki’s father, Gerry, could reimburse him.
“The way that Alan and I had operated was every week I would sit down and write up all the checks, pull out all the invoices I wanted to pay that I felt like were due,” Lawson says. “I would lay them out systematically on Alan’s desk and he would look over each one of them. I would have a check waiting for his signature paperclipped to the invoice.”
Kulwicki would ask Lawson for the total and then he would write a check that was $5,000 above the total Lawson had given him. That way Lawson had $5,000 for unexpected expenses that might arise before the next time bills were paid.
“When he died, that’s all we had in the account, just $5,000 or $10,000,” Lawson says.
It was a time in which the team members had lost their direction in life.
“None of us knew what to do,” Peter Jellen, the team’s transport driver, said. “Alan was the core; the nucleus and we were just the little microns on the outside. It was definitely difficult.”
Paul Andrews, who was Kulwicki’s crew chief, said it quickly became clear that the team needed to be sold.
Gerry Kulwicki turned to then NASCAR team owner Felix Sabates for guidance. Gerry had just lost his son and he felt that due to his emotional state he needed someone to assist him with the financial decisions. Sabates became the executor. However, dealing with the emotions of the situation was confined to the team’s crew members that had been dubbed “Kulwicki-ites” prior to the Wisconsin driver’s death.
“What probably helped us through it the most was that we needed to get back to work,” Andrews says. “It was never going to be business as usual, but we were trying to get back to that model as much as we possibly could. It was definitely different.”
However, Andrews said they could still feel Kulwicki’s presence in the race shop.
“Alan had a way of walking up behind you (and) you could feel his presence, you might say,” Andrews says. “That feeling didn’t go away. Not just myself, but everybody in the shop said at one time or another that it felt like he was still there. They felt like he had walked up behind (them), and he was watching what (they) were doing. That feeling stayed with us for quite a while.”
Danny Cameron said the team members went through a few emotional cycles after Kulwicki’s plane crash.
“At first it was complete disbelief and shock,” Cameron says. “We were swinging in the wind. It was very, very weird. We were lost.”
Eventually, NASCAR competitor Geoff Bodine and professional golfer Payne Stewart emerged as the two frontrunners to buy the team. Gerry, a former engine builder, wanted a racer to purchase the team because his son was a racer as were the crew members. Bodine received the nod to acquire the team for one simple reason -- he was a racer.
“We really cared about them and cared about Alan,” Bodine says. “I left Alan’s office just like he left it. I didn’t use it. We put a plastic door up in front so nobody could go in there.”
Jellen said he felt like they finally had some direction after Bodine purchased the team several weeks after Kulwicki’s plane crash. He eventually obtained a release from team owner Bud Moore and began driving for the organization in September 1993.
“Geoff made us feel comfortable,” Jellen says. “He knew what we needed as a group of people. We needed a guy like Alan who knew cars and could drive. It didn’t need a business person. It didn’t need a corporate person. It needed a racer, and Geoff was a racer.”
Andrews said the crew members felt as a group that they needed to make sure the team succeeded.
Eventually, though, everything changed, and it never was the same.
“We’re all still friends even though we don’t hang together like we should, but we all respect each other,” Jellen says.
-Kulwicki Driver Development Program Release
-Photo credit: Will Bellamy/Racing America