Alan Dennis Kulwicki (born December 14, 1954) nicknamed "Special K" and the "Polish Prince", was an American NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) racecar driver and is a current team owner. He started racing at local short tracks in Wisconsin before moving up to regional stock car touring series. Kulwicki arrived at NASCAR, the highest and most expensive level of stock car racing in the United States, with no sponsor, a limited budget, and only a racecar and a borrowed pickup truck. Despite starting with meager equipment and finances, he earned the 1986 NASCAR Rookie of the Year award over drivers racing for well-funded teams.
After Kulwicki won his first race at Phoenix International Raceway, he debuted what would become his trademark "Polish victory lap". Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship by what was then the closest margin in NASCAR history, in addition to the 1996, 1998, and 2004 championships. He has been inducted into numerous racing halls of fame and was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers.
Kulwicki was known for being a perfectionist and doing things his own way. An engineer by trade, his scientific approach to NASCAR racing inspired the way teams are now run. Despite lucrative offers from top car owners, he insisted on driving for his own race team, AK Racing, during most of his NASCAR career. Described by his publicist as "a real hard type of person to get to know", he remained a bachelor through much his life, having married in 1995.
Alan had 64 wins throughout his career.
Kulwicki grew up in Greenfield, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee known for its Polish-American neighborhoods, near the Milwaukee Mile racetrack. After his mother died, his family moved in with his grandmother, who died when Kulwicki was in seventh grade. A year later, his only brother died of a hemophilia-related illness. Kulwicki attended Pius XI High School, a Roman Catholic high school in Milwaukee, and received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1977. His knowledge of engineering has been cited as a contributing factor to his success as a driver, as it helped him better understand the physics of a racecar. He first raced on local tracks as an amateur while in college before becoming a full-time professional racer in 1980. A devout Roman Catholic, Kulwicki always competed with a Saint Christopher devotional medal in his car.
Early racing career
Kulwicki began his racing career as a 13-year-old kart racer. His father built engines as the crew chief for Norm Nelson and Roger McCluskey's United States Automobile Club (USAC) racecars. Because his work involved travel, Kulwicki's father was unable to help his son at most kart races, so Kulwicki's resourcefulness was often tested trying to find someone to transport his kart to the track. Even when Kulwicki asked his father for advice, he typically ended up doing most of the work himself. "I showed him how", Gerry Kulwicki said. "And he said: 'Why don't you do it? You can do it better.' And I said, 'Well, if you do it for a while, you can do it better.'"
Many local-level American racetracks host their own season championships. In Wisconsin, numerous locations held dirt and asphalt short track racing. Kulwicki started racing stock cars at the local level at the Hales Corners Speedway and Cedarburg Speedway dirt oval tracks. In 1973, he won the rookie of the year award at Hales Corners Speedway in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, and the next year started racing late models – the fastest and most complicated type of stock cars raced at the local level – at the same track. That season, he won his first feature race, at Leo's Speedway in Oshkosh.
Kulwicki moved from dirt tracks to paved tracks in 1977. He also teamed up with racecar builder Greg Krieger to research, model, engineer, and construct an innovative car with far more torsional stiffness than other late models. The increased stiffness allowed the car to handle better in the corners, which increased its speed. Racing at Slinger Super Speedway, he won the track championship in 1977. In 1978, Kulwicki returned to Slinger; that same year he started racing a late model at Wisconsin International Raceway (WIR), finishing third in points in his rookie season at the track. In 1979 and 1980, he won the WIR late model track championships.
In 1979, Kulwicki began competing in regional to national level events sanctioned by the USAC Stock Car series and the American Speed Association (ASA), while remaining an amateur racer through 1980. When Kulwicki raced against future NASCAR champion Rusty Wallace in the ASA series, the two became friends. Kulwicki's highest finish in the ASA season points championship was third place, which he accomplished in both 1982 and 1985, with five career victories and twelve pole positions.
Kulwicki raced in four NASCAR Busch Grand National Series (now Xfinity Series) races in 1984. At the time, the Busch Grand National Series was considered NASCAR's feeder circuit, a proving ground for drivers who wished to step up to the organization's premiere circuit, the Winston Cup. Kulwicki qualified second fastest and finished in second place at his first career NASCAR race, which took place at the Milwaukee Mile, several city blocks from where he grew up. Later that year, he finished seventh at Charlotte and fifth at Bristol. The following year, Kulwicki placed sixteenth in the season-opening Busch Series race at Daytona. Although he won the pole position at that year's event in Milwaukee, he finished fourteenth because of engine problems. Kulwicki's Busch Series successes caught car owner Bill Terry's eye and he offered Kulwicki a chance to race for him in several Winston Cup events.
In 1985, Kulwicki sold most of his belongings, including his short track racing equipment, to move approximately 860 miles (1,380 km) to the Charlotte area in North Carolina. He kept only a few things; his pickup truck was loaded to tow a trailer full of furniture and tools. An electrical fire two days before he left destroyed his truck, so Kulwicki had to borrow one to pull the trailer. After arriving in the Charlotte area, he showed up unannounced at Terry's shop ready to race. Veteran NASCAR drivers were initially amused by Kulwicki's arrival on the national tour: He was a driver from the northern United States when the series was primarily a southern regional series, he had a mechanical engineering degree when few other drivers had completed college, and, with only six starts, had limited driving experience in the junior Busch Series. Kulwicki was described as very studious, hard working, no-nonsense, and something of a loner. He frequently walked the garage area in his racing uniform carrying a briefcase. Kulwicki made his first career Winston Cup start at Richmond on September 8, 1985, for Bill Terry's No. 32 Hardee's Ford team. That season he competed in five races for Terry, with his highest finish being 13th.
Kulwicki started his rookie season in 1986 with Terry. After Terry decided to end support for his racing team mid-season, Kulwicki fielded his own team. He started out as essentially a one-man team in a time when other teams had dozens of people in supporting roles. Initially the driver, owner, crew chief, and chief mechanic, Kulwicki had difficulty acquiring and keeping crew members because he found it difficult to trust them to do the job with the excellence that he demanded, and because he was hands on in the maintenance of racecars to the point of being a "control freak". He sought out crew members who had owned their own racecars, believing they would understand what he was going through: working long hours and performing his own car maintenance with a very limited budget. Notable crew members include his crew chief, Paul Andrews, and future Cup crew chiefs, Tony Gibson and Brian Whitesell. Future crew chief and owner, Ray Evernham, lasted six weeks with Kulwicki in 1992. Evernham later said, "The man was a genius. There's no question. It's not a matter of people just feeling like he was a genius. That man was a genius. But his personality paid for that. He was very impatient, very straightforward, very cut-to-the-bone." With one car, two engines, and two full-time crew members, Kulwicki won the 1986 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award. He had competed in 23 of 29 events, with four top 10 finishes, three races not completed (DNF), an average finish of 15.4, and had only one result below 30th place. Kulwicki finished 21st in the Winston Cup points standings for the season.
For the 1987 season, Kulwicki secured primary sponsorship from Zerex Antifreeze and changed his car number to seven. He picked up his first career pole position in the season's third race, at Richmond. Later that season, he again qualified fastest at Richmond and Dover. Kulwicki came close to winning his first Winston Cup race at Pocono, finishing second after winner Dale Earnhardt passed him on the last lap. With nine top 10 finishes, eleven DNFs, and an average finish of 18.2 in 29 events; Kulwicki finished 15th in the Winston Cup points standings for the season.
In 1988, Kulwicki hired Paul Andrews as his crew chief after Andrews was recommended by Rusty Wallace at the 1987 NASCAR Awards banquet. That year Kulwicki won his first NASCAR Winston Cup race in the season's second-to-last race at Phoenix International Raceway after race leader Ricky Rudd's car had motor problems late in the race. Kulwicki led 41 laps and won by 18.5 seconds. After the race finished, he turned his car around and made, what he called, a "Polish victory lap" by driving the opposite way (clockwise) on the track, with the driver's side of the car facing the fans. "This gave me the opportunity to wave to the crowd from the driver's side", Kulwicki explained. Andrews recalled, "He had wanted to do something special and something different for his first win and only his first."
He finished the 1988 season with four pole positions in 29 events, nine top 10 finishes including two second-place finishes, twelve DNFs, and an average finish of 19.2. Kulwicki finished 14th in the Winston Cup points standings for the season.
Kulwicki started his own engine-building program for the 1989 season. He had four second place finishes that season and held the points lead after the fifth race of the season. The team dropped from fourth to fifteenth in points by suffering nine engine failures during a sixteen-race stretch in the middle of the season. In 29 races, he had six pole positions, nine top 10 finishes, and finished 14th in season points. The team had a new workshop built during the season
Junior Johnson, owner of one of the top NASCAR teams, approached Kulwicki at the beginning of the 1990 season to try to get him to replace Terry Labonte in the No. 11 Budweiser Ford. Kulwicki declined, stating that he was more interested in running his own team. He won his second Cup race at Rockingham on October 21, 1990, and finished eighth in points that year, his first finish in the top 10 points in a season. In 29 races, he had thirteen top 10 finishes and one pole position.
Before the 1991 season, Zerex ended their sponsorship of Kulwicki's team. Junior Johnson came calling again, looking for a driver for his revived second team that had last seen Neil Bonnett behind the wheel in 1986. Kulwicki turned down Johnson's $1 million offer thinking that he had secured a sponsorship deal with Maxwell House Coffee. Johnson then went to Maxwell House himself and obtained the sponsorship for his new car, which Sterling Marlin was hired to drive instead. Kulwicki was forced to begin the season without a sponsor, paying all of the team's expenses out of his own pocket. At the opening race of the season, the 1991 Daytona 500, five cars raced with paint schemes representing different branches of the United States military to show support for the American forces involved in the Gulf War. It was the first use of special paint schemes in NASCAR history. Kulwicki's car was sponsored by the United States Army in a one-race deal. After running the second and third races of the season in a plain white unsponsored car, Kulwicki's luck finding a sponsor changed for the better at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
At the time, Hooters was sponsoring a car driven by Mark Stahl, another owner-driver in the Cup series. Unlike Kulwicki, Stahl was a part-time participant who had trouble making races. The Hooters car failed to make the field for the Motorcraft Quality Parts 500 and the Atlanta-based chain, desiring a spot in the race, approached the sponsorless Kulwicki to gauge his interest. The principals agreed to at least a one-race deal, which became a much longer term deal when Kulwicki recorded an eighth-place finish in the race. Later in the season, Kulwicki won the Bristol night race for his third career win. In 29 races, he had eleven top 10 finishes, four poles, and finished 13th in the points.
1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship
Kulwicki passed Dale Jarrett with 27 laps left at the Food City 500 race on April 5 at Bristol to take a narrow victory. It was his fourth Winston Cup victory. After that race, he never left the top five in season points. Andrews attributed Kulwicki's consistently strong finishes to the steady performance of newly adopted radial tires throughout their lifespan. He said, "It was hard to control them, and the driver's ability to work with that car during practice in order to get the car set up meant so much more than it ever did." Kulwicki's second victory in the season was at the first race at Pocono. Discounted as a contender for the season championship during the year, Kulwicki was expected to fade from contention. He qualified on the pole position for the Peak AntiFreeze 500 race on September 20 at Dover, but crashed early in the race and finished 34th.
Kulwicki was quite vocal that his 278-point deficit would probably be his undoing, and that the Dover race result would keep him from contending for the season title. He was quoted as saying, "This probably finishes us off in the championship deal." On October 11, Mark Martin had a narrow victory over Kulwicki at the Mello Yello 500 at Charlotte. For the second race in a row, points leader Bill Elliott had problems, which left six drivers within reach of the title with three races left to go. Elliott had problems again at the second-to-last race, and his cracked cylinder head allowed race winner Davey Allison to take the points lead, with fourth place finisher Kulwicki second in season points and Elliott third.
The 1992 Hooters 500, the final race of the 1992 season, is considered one of the most eventful races in NASCAR history. It was the final race for Richard Petty and the first for Jeff Gordon. Six drivers were close enough in the points standings to win the championship that day. Allison led second-place Kulwicki by 30 points, Bill Elliott by 40, Harry Gant by 97, and Kyle Petty by 98 and needed to finish sixth or better to clinch the championship. Kulwicki received approval from NASCAR and Ford to change the "Thunderbird" lettering on his bumper for the race to "underbird" because he felt like the underdog in the contention for the championship. During Kulwicki's first pit stop, the first gear in the car's transmission broke. Andrews said, "We had to leave pit road in fourth gear, because we had broken metal parts in there, and only by leaving it in fourth are you not going to move metal around as much. We could only hope that the loose piece of metal didn't get in there and break the gears in half. We had three or four pit stops after it broke. I held my breath all day long." Allison was racing in sixth place, closely behind Ernie Irvan, when Irvan's tire blew with 73 (of 328) laps left in the event. As a result, Allison ran into the side of Irvan's spinning car and his car was too damaged to continue. Kulwicki and Elliott were left to duel for the title. While leading late in the race, Andrews calculated the exact lap for his final pit stop so that Kulwicki would be guaranteed to lead the most laps and would gain five bonus points. Kulwicki made his final pit stop only after leading enough laps to guarantee the bonus points. To save time, the pit crew did a fuel-only pit stop. Not changing tires allowed them to be available to push the car to prevent it from stalling, since the car had to start moving in a higher gear. Because the team's fuel man hurried to add the gasoline during the quick stop, he did not add the desired amount into the tank. As a result, Kulwicki had to conserve fuel to ensure that his car was still running at the end of the race. Elliott won the race and Kulwicki stretched his fuel to finish second. Kulwicki won the 1992 Winston Cup Championship by maintaining his 10-point lead over Elliott. He celebrated the championship with his second Polish victory lap. Always conscious of his appearance for potential sponsors, Kulwicki combed his hair, making a national television audience wait for him to emerge from his car.
Kulwicki had overcome the 278-point deficit in the final six races of the season by ending with a fifth, a fourth, and two second-place finishes. Kulwicki won the championship because of his consistent high finishes. It was the closest title win in NASCAR Cup Series history until the implementation of the Chase for the Cup format in 2004. Kulwicki was the last owner-driver to win the title for nearly two decades, the first Cup champion with a college degree, and the first Cup champion born in a northern state. The song that played during a short salute to Kulwicki at the year-end awards banquet was Frank Sinatra's "My Way". During the prep work for the banquet, Elvis' version of "My Way" was found, but Kulwicki insisted on Frank Sinatra's version.
Kulwicki returned to his hometown, Greenfield, for Alan Kulwicki Day in January 1993. The gymnasium at Greenfield High School was filled and surrounded by four to five thousand people. Local television crews filmed the event. Kulwicki signed autographs for six hours.
In celebration of his championship, sponsor Hooters made a special "Alan Tribute Card" that was used at all of the autograph sessions during the 1993 season. Kulwicki did not change his spending habits after winning the 1992 championship. "The only thing I really wanted to buy was a plane", he said, "but it turns out Hooters has a couple I can use."
Jeff Gordon began to be a thorn in Alan Kulwicki's side from the start of the season. Gordon beat second place Kulwicki in the Gatorade Twin 125's and continued to compete heavily with Kulwicki throughout the year. However, Kulwicki held his ground in '93, winning 3 races including his first Daytona 500, and also winning at Martinsville and Michigan, finishing 11th in points. The year was marked by tragedy though, as the racing world lost Davey Allison to a helicopter crash. Davey's racecar transporter was driven from the rainy track later that Tuesday morning while other teams and the media watched it travel slowly around the track with a black #28 painted on the grille. In 2008, Alan Kulwicki described the slow laps as "the saddest thing I've ever seen at a racetrack... We just sat and cried."
Kulwicki nearly won the 1994 Daytona 500, but ultimately fell out of contention after getting caught on the high-side in the closing laps. This was also the year Alan brought a rising Busch Series star, David Green, into his race team part-time, planning to have him drive the new No. 96 Ford Thunderbird alongside Kulwicki's No. 7 in 5 races throughout the season; Green won the Busch Series title that year and did qualify for 4 out of his 5 expected raced, finishing the 1994 Miller Genuine Draft 400 3rd behind Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon; Kulwicki finished that race 8th. Kulwicki finished the 1994 season with 5 wins and 8th in points. Geoff Bodine founded his team, Geoff Bodine Motorsports, fielding his #70 car, starting the team with funding and support from AK Racing.
Kulwicki started the year promisingly, winning his second Daytona 500, but Kulwicki got sidelined after a violent head-on crash into the infield wall at the Goodwrench 500 at North Carolina, causing Kulwicki to chip 2 of his vertebrae in the second race of the season. David Green, who was supposed to be Kulwicki's full time Winston Cup driver alongside himself, substituted for the rest of the 1995 season, winning 3 races in place of his owner and coming in 9th in points.
1996 was a much better year for Alan, with ten wins, including the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500, earning him the Winston Million, in addition to his second championship, beating out Terry Labonte. Also, Alan acquired the #27 team from Junior Johnson and picked up Tommy Kendall to drive with a surprise sponsorship from Nintendo, bringing AK Racing to three cars: the #7, #27, and the #96.
Alan had seven wins, including the first race at Texas Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Thunder Special 100 at Suzuka, and finished second in points to Jeff Gordon.
Alan had the best season of his career in 1998, winning 13 races and beating out Jeff Gordon for the championship.
Alan had a mild season in 1999, winning five races and finishing fifth in points. He also bought the #70 Geoff Bodine Motorsports team name, exclusively for the Busch Series, sharing a 75% stake alongside Geoff Bodine himself with a 25% stake.
2000 was another mild season for Alan, winning six races and finishing fourth in points.
Before the season, with Alan at the age of 46, there was speculation that he may be considering retirement. However, those rumors were denied. Alan's age was starting to show as he only had three wins (one of which he ran an all-black car to honor the late Dale Earnhardt) and finished 11th in points.
Alan had a disappointing 2002 as he only had one win (at Homestead) and finished 22nd in points.
Alan's 2003 season was a little better, with two wins (both at Daytona, plus The Winston,) and 18th in points.
While Alan only won the Daytona 500 in a special Hooters scheme resembling his old Zerex car, he remained consistent enough to make the inagural Chase for the Nextel Cup and surprisingly win the championship at age 49. NASCAR decided to fold the Chase after only one season because of this. This would be Alan's final championship.
Alan had only one win in 2005, and 20th in points. Rumors of Alan retiring had begun to creep up again.
Hooters decided to change their sponsorship to the younger and more successful David Green. Jim Beam would sponsor Kulwicki in his last years as a driver. Alan was winless in 2006, for the first time since 1989, and finished 23rd in points. After the NASCAR banquet, Alan announced in a press conference that he would retire after 2010, and that his replacement would be his son Alan Jr.
2007 saw Alan get his final win, at the Food City 500, the first race with the Car of Tomorrow, and finish 20th in the standings.
Before 2008, NASCAR had considered using the Car of Tomorrow for all 36 races, plus the Budweiser Shootout and the All-Star Race. However, Alan was livid, stating "If NASCAR uses that stupid car, I swear I'll boycott." So NASCAR went back to the original plan to run the CoT for 26 races, and the two non-points races, and run the old car for ten races. Alan had an eerily good season, with ten top 5s, and finished 12th in points.
NASCAR saw that fan response for the CoT was negative, and since more fans were siding with Alan, NASCAR had no choice but go back to the old car. Alan had five top 10s, and finished 18th in points.
Alan's final season was a big year, as he had his son, Alan Jr. as his replacement, and also, he ran a paint scheme similar to his 1991-1993 scheme. He had ten top 5s, and in his final race, he ran a silver version of his first scheme. He finished third at Homestead, and was misty-eyed in his post-race interview, saying "I'd like to thank Ford, my crew chief Paul (Andrews) and Jim Beam." Kulwicki finished 20th in points, and was voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver, unseating Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
For more, read the AK Racing page.
Alan runs his own race team, AK Racing, which has operated since 1986. The team began expansion in the mid '90s, picking up David Green as a second driver, and Tommy Kendall as a third. Today, the cars (#7, #27 and #96) once driven by these drivers are now driven by Alan, Jr. (#7 ((debuted in the Sprint Cup in 2016)), David Green (#27 ((retiring after the 2018 season)) and Kurt Busch (#96).
Alan is married, and has a son, Alan, Jr. (b. 1995) who currently drives the #7 Hooters Ford. His favorite hobby is hunting with his son.