Alan Kulwicki went south in 1985 to pursue his NASCAR dream when a dream was all he had. He had sold most of his belongings back home in Greenfield, Wis., and two days before he set out for Charlotte, an electrical short ignited a fire that burned up his truck and trailer—and all the possessions he had retained. Struggling on his first NASCAR tour that year, he was a source of amusement to the veterans. He was a mechanical engineer out of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in a sport in which most of his competitors had made it only through high school. He was a small, quiet, polished, Polish-American Yankee walking through boisterous garage areas, wearing his driving uniform but carrying a briefcase. The good ol' boys snickered, but he was unobtrusive, so they let him alone.
Then they began to watch him work. The big-name drivers, who rarely dirtied their hands, had a dozen crewmen swarming around their cars; Kulwicki was doing the same amount of work by himself with maybe two or three partially skilled volunteers. The briefcase was for his business papers; unlike the stars, he had no agent, no business manager, no contract-negotiating team. He did it all himself. The veterans would shake their heads, admiring his spunk but pitying his chances.
In 1988 Kulwicki did the impossible: He won a Winston Cup race, at Phoenix. He took what he called "my Polish victory lap," driving around the track backward. And the good ol' boys cheered. Dale Earnhardt, the toughest veteran on the tour, warmed to him and began calling him Kwik, which evolved into the nickname that stuck, Kwikie. A bachelor, Kulwicki was the last ladies' man on the tour after the other stars had all married and settled down.
As his fortunes improved, he began to get offers from major teams. Twice he rebuffed legendary team owner Junior Johnson. The good ol' boys thought that Kwikie's stubborn streak would be his undoing, but he wanted to win the Winston Cup by driving for a team that he also owned. That had been done in the modern era only by Richard Petty, who drove for his family's lucrative Petty Enterprises, which was hardly a shoestring operation. In 1991 Kulwicki finally landed a major sponsor in Hooter's, a popular Southern restaurant chain.
In 1992 he at last realized his dream. He won the Winston Cup, edging Bill Elliott and Davey Allison in the season point totals. He had won only two races but had done well enough at each stop on the NASCAR tour to collect points consistently. Suddenly Kulwicki was one of the most popular drivers in the sport. Fans respected his "I did it my way" approach, and he would sit for hours signing autographs.
Last Thursday, after just such an autograph session in Knoxville, Tenn., Kulwicki, 38, and three other people, including the pilot, boarded a private plane for the short flight to Bristol, Term., where last weekend's NASCAR race was to be held. As the twin-engine Merlin made its final approach to the airport near Blountville, it suddenly began spiraling downward, nose-first, and crashed into a hill. Everyone on board died, and all were believed to have been killed on impact.
At Bristol International Raceway, where Kulwicki won last year's running of the Food City 500, the weekend mood was bleak. "I'm really sick because Alan didn't get a chance to enjoy the things he'd built," said fellow driver Mark Martin, a friend of Kulwicki's since their days on the short tracks of the American Speed Association in the Midwest.
But, briefly, Alan Kulwicki knew that he'd done it his way.