UNDERDOG, CHAMPION Kulwicki leaves legacy of hard work, dreams fulfilled


Winston Cup Champion Alan Kulwicki, who died Thursday night in a plane crash near Blountville, Tenn., pursued and captured a dream and at the same time earned the admiration of his rivals and his fans.

Kulwicki, 38, was the consummate underdog.

While others complained of their lack of sponsors and money, Kulwicki just worked harder. He proved if you wanted something bad enough and worked hard enough and had faith, you could make your dreams come true.

He won the 1986 Rookie of the Year title while campaigning one car with just one engine. It was a near heroic achievement. But it was only the beginning. He turned down offers from top car owners Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick to pursue his dreams with his own team.

Three years later, in Atlanta last November,Kulwicki won the Winston Cup Championship, becoming the first driver-owner to win the title since Richard Petty in 1979. He was also the first champion with a college degree and the first non-Southerner (he was from Wisconsin) to conquer the previously all-Southern sport.

Thursday night, while returning from an autograph signing session in Knoxville, Kulwicki's plane crashed, killing him; Mark Brooks, 26, son of Hooters restaurants chairman Robert H. Brooks; Dan Duncan, 44, sports publicist for the company; and Charlie Campbell, 48, the corporate pilot.

Yesterday, Hooters restaurants, which sponsored Kulwicki, were closed.

"We have had so many people come up to our doors, telling us how upset they are that Alan has died," said Chuck Rudis, manager of the Hooters at the Inner Harbor. "They have tears in their eyes when they ask about Alan. It's been really amazing how many dedicated fans he has here. It was a double blow for us, with both Alan and Mark Brooks being killed. Both of them had visited here and a lot of our staff had met them."

Kulwicki touched people.

He was a quiet, dignified man whose biggest problem was finding ways to make people understand that if he didn't have time to smile, sign autographs or give interviews, it wasn't personal. He'd do all those things, but first he had to take care of his business.

Kulwicki often looked tired from working on his car. His intensity is legendary. But his smile, when it came, could brighten any room.

He liked jazz and Broadway plays and quiet dinners with friends. At Daytona Beach, where many drivers frequent crowded restaurants with sponsors and fans, Kulwicki usually would be found in more intimate settings having leisurely dinners with close friends.

A serious man, Kulwicki also had a quirky sense of humor that he displayed publicly more than once.

He had the cartoon character Mighty Mouse stitched on his uniforms. Thunderbirds were "Underbirds" to Kulwicki, and he persuaded Ford to allow him to remove the T and H from his race car and capitalize the U before the Atlanta race last fall.

And, then, when he won the championship, by 10 points over Bill Elliott at the end of that race, he did what he called his "Polish victory lap," driving his car backward around the oval to the crowd's laughter and cheers.

"I hope it didn't offend anybody," Kulwicki said later in the press box. "But you've got to do something different to celebrate an important occasion."

He worried about his image. He wanted to be the best champion NASCAR had. In the Winston Cup Media Guide this season, Kulwicki wrote: "I realize the 1993 season will be both enjoyable and difficult because of my new role as Winston Cup champion. With that title comes a lot of responsibility and I will try my best to fulfill all of the champion's obligations.

"I'm going to work hard all year long, because when the 1993 season is over, I want NASCAR, Winston, the fans, the media and especially the competitors to say they were proud to have Alan Kulwicki represent them as the Winston Cup champion."

Yesterday, NASCAR president Bill France said Kulwicki's legacy to the sport "will be his determination and commitment to give his best to every endeavor."

Alan Kulwicki, his dreams and his goals achieved, can rest in peace.

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