In an era of corporate conglomerates, Jeremy Clements victory was a throwback to the days when Alan Kulwicki defined the odds during his short NASCAR career.
Cash rules the world of auto racing. It always has been and now more than ever, if a driver doesn’t have the money, there’s no ride for them. If the driver has minimal funding, the road ahead will be difficult. Two drivers come in mind where both have defined those setbacks, Road America winner Jeremy Clements and 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series (now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series) champion Alan Kulwicki.
When I thought about writing a throwback column before Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, there were a couple of ideas I had. One was writing about the first NASCAR race I watched in 2003, the other was a driver retrospective.
In the wake of Clements winning at Road America Aug. 27, there was a throwback element I couldn’t resist writing.
For starters, Clements and his family go way back. Jeremy’s grandfather, Louie, was the crew chief for 1960 champion Rex White. Jeremy’s father, Tony, is his primary crew chief (Danny Gill was the winning crew chief at Road America) and one of the key reasons why Jeremy Clements Racing is alive and well under a low budget and old equipment.
Now, the third-generation family member won in a nine-year-old car, beating the elite operations of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske and will be fighting for a championship in a few weeks.
Clements’ victory was also the first time an Xfinity Series team that isn’t affiliated with a Cup team nor runs anywhere else since David Gilliland’s Clay Andrews Racing won at Kentucky June 17, 2006.
The Clements family are doing it their way, sounds familiar? It should be because my throwback profile, I focused on Kulwicki’s story and why it resonated with me.
When I was growing up, Kulwicki was one of my idols. The way he carried himself in the garage, his intelligent vision and of course, his educational background won me over but his adversities sets him apart.
In 1985, Kulwicki sold his belongings and left his home state of Wisconsin to prusue a career in NASCAR’s mecca, North Carolina, with no sponsor and a trailer he borrowed after his pickup truck was destroyed due to an electrical fire. It still didn’t stop him from making a name for himself and compete with the likes of Bill Elliott, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
Often forgotten, Kulwicki drove for a team before becoming an independent owner in 1986. Kulwicki drove most of his rookie campaign for car owner Bill Terry before cutting ties with him after the Busch 500 at Bristol Aug. 23, 1986.
Kulwicki’s personality was a bit misunderstood. He wanted to do things his way and felt he couldn’t trust others accomplishing his tasks. It became a detriment for several crew members who couldn’t hang with Kulwicki’s demands, including soon-to-be NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham, who lasted six weeks.
Instead, Kulwicki preferred crew members who understood the independent struggle over those who worked for other entities like Rick Hendrick and Bud Moore.
Control freak? Sure, but he had his reasons. He wanted to prove everyone he’s capable of succeeding without others multi-million-dollar support.
Kulwicki even turned down an offer to join Junior Johnson’s team twice, notably before the 1991 season. At first, it looked like a fatal mistake because Kulwicki entered Daytona—with two career wins under his belt—without a primary sponsor after finishing 8th in the standings the year before.
It didn’t take long for Kulwicki to acquire a permanent sponsor as Hooters ditched Mark Stahl and joined Kulwicki beginning at Atlanta Motor Speedway March 18. Kulwicki, Hooters and Atlanta will later become an entity forever etched in NASCAR history.
Despite a disappointing 13th place in the final standings, Kulwicki entered 1992 as a dark horse contender for the championship. He was already known as a fast qualifier, with 18 poles under his belt but the question was can he win under his own equipment on a regular basis?
Although Kulwicki only captured a career-high two wins at Bristol and Pocono in 1992, he showcased his amazing consistency by staying in the top 5-point standings for 25 straight races and added six more poles to his name. However, those stats are just stats because it’s two races fans recall about Kulwicki’s championship journey, Dover and Atlanta.
The Dover race marked disaster for Kulwicki, crashing out early and finished 34th after starting from the pole. Kulwicki’s dropped from third to fourth in points and his deficit went from 164 points to 278 behind Johnson’s driver Bill Elliott with six races to go.
Under the points format they ran 25 years ago, it was steep hill to climb because Elliott and Davey Allison were the guys to beat and had strong funding’s compared to Kulwicki’s self-operated team.
Kulwicki was vocal about his accident, saying it just about ended his championship hopes. Others may have given up and from the public eye, Kulwicki’s comments felt he was about to submit to the superior drivers.
Instead of dwelling about it and struggled like Martin Truex, Jr. after being eliminated in the 2nd round of the 2016 playoffs, Kulwicki capitalized from the Allison and Elliott’s pitfalls and finished in the top 5 in three out of the next five races. His worst finish in that span was 12th on two occasions. Those runs moved him up to second in points, trailing Allison by only 30 points entering Atlanta.
In what’s considered to be the greatest race in NASCAR history, Kulwicki’s Ford “Underbird” led the most laps—one lap more than race winner Elliott—and with the help of crew chief Paul Andrews calculating when Kulwicki can pit, gasman Tony Gibson adding the right amount of fuel to make the distance and Terry Labonte staying out an extra two laps, Kulwicki beat Elliott by 8 points in the final championship standings.
Kulwicki has beaten the Ford’s goliaths of Johnson (Elliott) and Robert Yates (Allison) and accomplished his dream of winning the Winston Cup title under his own equipment. After his “Polish Victory Lap,” Kulwicki said it was a dream come true winning the championship.
During his interview, his humility was displayed and thanked everyone that helped him win the 1992 title. It’s not just about him and his championship interview was an example that sometimes, others who shared Kulwicki’s vision can make a difference.
Kulwicki’s ambitious life was cut short April 1, 1993 as he and three others was killed in a plane crash near Blountville, Tennessee, he was 38 years old.
To this day, the last pure-driver/owner champion. Nobody else guided Kulwicki’s operation but himself and still was a greater feat than Tony Stewart’s 2011 title because of that reason. Plus, Kulwicki won the championship through consistency, a lost art in today’s sport.
It resonates with me because he utilized his talents and backed it up when others wanted to either join their vision or writtten him off because his vision just wouldn’t work. Some say he was hard to deal with because of his demands, like how hard I can be when others don’t see my vision or beliefs.
Who hasn’t been hard to deal with in some capacity? It shouldn’t be a negative if they’re passionate about meeting their goals. I admire his attitude because he stood for what he believed in without others changing his opinion.
Kulwicki was a fighter his entire life, much like I’ve been a fighter. At times, I’ve been written off because of my battle with Asperger’s but still found ways to prove others wrong when granted the opportunity to showcase what I bring to the table.
During my time at Idaho and now as a journeyman journalist, Kulwicki’s story made me realize I had to focus on my dream (covering auto racing for a living) and stay serious without losing sight on my work abilities. I still live by those remarks Kulwicki has set for himself in his short but brilliant career.
There are athletes who are heroes because of their performance but Kulwicki is a rare entity where he’s a hero, not for his driving style, but for his never-die attitude.
Kulwicki’s story is pure joy for guys like Clements who never gave up on their goals and continued to pour their hearts out to one day reaching the top of the mountain. Whether it’s for a week, month, year or forever, to say a driver/owner beating the odds is remarkable. That’s why auto racing is unlike any other sport because of stories like this.