The connections between the late Alan Kulwicki and Slinger Super Speedway in Wisconsin run deep. Before he became the 1992 NASCAR Cup Series champion, he was cutting his teeth on short tracks throughout the Midwest like Slinger, where he was the 1981 Slinger Nationals champion.
Nearly 30 years after Kulwicki’s untimely passing, his legacy is still alive and well on Wisconsin’s short tracks. When Luke Fenhaus won this year’s Slinger Nationals on Tuesday, he celebrated with Kulwicki’s signature Polish victory lap.
In some ways, joining Kulwicki and a host of other NASCAR stars who have won the Nationals was just as important as winning the “golden ticket” to compete with the Camping World SRX Series on Saturday at Slinger that came with the Nationals win.
“A lot to take in, for sure,” said Fenhaus. “Getting the golden ticket was the number-one thing, but also to add our name to the list of winners at the Slinger Nationals is awesome.”
Fenhaus has been a part of the Kulwicki Driver Development Program since 2019. Tom Roberts, KDDP’s executive director, is in awe of Fenhaus’ accomplishments at such a young age.
What Luke has done is almost impossible, but it’s not impossible because he did it. That track is so unique and so demanding. The history and everything that’s behind it, especially with the Alan Kulwicki connection. When you think, way back then, with him winning it in 1981, there’s just something about Slinger Speedway and particularly that race that, for me, feels like home. I think Alan Kulwicki’s spirit is always there.
Now, the eyes of a national audience will be on Fenhaus when he takes on the SRX superstars on CBS Saturday. However, he’s not allowing the spotlight to turn into extra pressure to perform.
“This is probably the biggest race of my life or event in my life,” said Fenhaus. “There’s a lot of guys on social media saying there’s a lot of pressure on me for trying to win. I’m really looking forward to soaking it all in and talking to everyone, getting a good feel for the race car. If we can be in contention for the win, I’m going to go for it, for sure.”
Roberts believes many of the fans tuning in will find something relatable in Fenhaus. His Late Model roots will appeal to fans of the short track scene, but he will also be the youngest competitor in a field stacked with grizzled veterans.
“What I love is now, everybody wants to be the ‘ringer.’ Luke gets to be the ringer, but he represents the new guy that the younger generation can identify with. That’s what’s so cool about the SRX Series. Someone is given the opportunity to be the new flagbearer for a much younger generation. The fact that it’s being shown on CBS national television is completely immeasurable for what that means.”
One of those veterans who will be on track Saturday night is two-time Daytona 500 champion Michael Waltrip. Early in his career, Waltrip competed against Kulwicki and many of the Midwest’s great drivers, both in the Cup Series and during barnstorming trips to short tracks such as Slinger.
"It was cool getting to race against Alan," said Waltrip. "What he accomplished gave so many people so much hope that there were opportunities out there for them if they just worked hard and did the right things. Alan was an inspiration.
“I have great memories of racing up at Madison and Slinger and checking out how Alan, Matt Kenseth, Rich Bickle, a bunch of the guys I raced with, what their history was and how they cut their teeth getting ready for NASCAR.”
The cars may be different, the spotlight brighter, the competition boasting a higher profile. Nonetheless, Fenhaus has a singular focus for Saturday’s SRX shot – winning.
"At the end of the day, it’s racing. I want to go for the checkered flag. Probably in hot laps, I’ll be nervous and watch out for some guys, but once we’re racing I’ll go for the win."
If Fenhaus can indeed pull off the win in the “Balboa” car Saturday night, it’s safe to expect he will take another quarter-mile Polish victory lap at Slinger Speedway. It will be another nod to Kulwicki’s legacy in Wisconsin and the short track world.
“I got teary-eyed seeing him do the Polish victory lap, and I think a lot of people were that way,” said Roberts. “I never did go that far, to imagine him being in an SRX car. That would be pretty mind-blowing.
“I think that it’s been Alan’s trademark for so long that there would be a good portion of the racing audience that would know what that’s all about. I know the guys out there, like a Bill Elliott or Tony Stewart, would know what it’s about. I’m sure the TV crew with Allen Bestwick and all of them, it would operate as an educational process to tell a new generation about Alan.”
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51 Content Supervisor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51 Photo