CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ The NASCAR Hall of Fame was abuzz Saturday afternoon as NASCAR personalities, media members and fans gathered inside the Great Hall for the unveiling of their newest exhibit: Short Careers, Lasting Legacy.
The exhibit included the cars of the late Tim Richmond, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki and also featured team owners Bondy Long and Carl Kiekaefer, as well as drivers Billy and Bobby Myers and fourth generation driver Adam Petty.
Each of these men left their mark on NASCAR, but had their careers cut short. Now, thanks to the folks at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, fans young and old can not only hear their stories, see artifacts from their career, but also learn of their lasting legacy.
Talking with family members, friends and former colleagues of these men, it became clear these men left a lasting mark on the sport both by their on-track talents and their personalities away from the sport.
For me, it was special to see both Allison and Kulwicki honored together, with both of their cars showcased in the same room. When I was a young fan in the early 1990s, these two were among the best drivers on the track and among my list of favorites. Their epic battle for the 1992 Winston Cup championship will forever be remembered as one of the best the sport has ever seen, yet less than a year later, both were gone.
Kulwicki, the defending champion, was lost when the airplane he was flying to Bristol Motor Speedway in crashed in the mountains of Tennessee on April 1, 1993. Also on board were Mark Brooks (son of Hooters owner Bob Brooks), Dan Duncan and Charles Campbell. The death sent shockwaves through the NASCAR community and hit the small, independent team especially hard.
Reflecting on the challenges following Kulwicki’s death, Tony Gibson said he contemplated leaving the sport. Now a crew chief for Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas Racing, Gibson was a crucial team member on the No. 7 team, but was also close friends with Kulwicki.
“There’s nobody like Alan, he was a different breed,” Gibson said with a smile. “He was a good friend, a great racer and very, very thorough in what he did. Outside of racing he was your best friend. You’d go to eat, go to the movies, he was a different person, but when it came to racing and working at the shop, (he was) nothing but business. It was a different person, but that’s how it had to be. You had to separate the friendship from the, ‘Hey man, you’re my best friend, but you work for me now.’ He was really good at doing that.”
Gibson admits it took him nearly two years to adjust to the demanding personality of his boss that came in direct contrast with that of his close friend. Once he realized Kulwicki was simply pushing his buttons and testing his guys, he says their relationship grew and flourished. “It was awesome, I wouldn’t change anything about it,” Gibson added.
Unlike anyone before him, Kulwicki came to NASCAR with a college education. Extremely meticulous, Kulwicki’s engineering experience helped separate the independently run team from the larger teams that dominated the sport at the time.
“A lot of fans don’t realize that Alan was the very first guy to bring engineering into NASCAR,” said Gibson. “He was the guy that knew that if you were going to be better in this sport, you needed to bring engineering into it. Now you look and half the people that work for you are engineers.”
Kulwicki remains the only NASCAR champion to hold a college degree, but Gibson again finds himself working with a college graduate. Gibson admits his years of experience have helped his relationship with Ryan Newman – a graduate of Purdue University.
After unveiling the car, it was clear Kulwicki’s former crew chief Paul Andrews was proud to see the "Underbird" sitting in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Reflecting on his friend and driver, Andrews said Kulwicki had an eye for the future.
“I think he would have won another championship and I think he would have been a stable owner in the sport,” Andrews said. “He probably wouldn’t have been one of the guys to drive until the age of 50. I believe he would have retired and been an owner. He could see the future. We talked about the future as far as where the sport was headed. We knew we needed to be a two car team, we had already talked about that. I would hate to be a driver for him, but I think he would have been a force to reckon with in the sport right now.”
Unfortunately, the sport lost its champion and these men lost their friend. On a cold, rain-soaked day in Bristol, Kulwicki’s hauler rode around the half-mile track as an official waved the checkered flag one last time.
“It was tough,” Gibson remembered. “I rode in the truck home with Peter (Jellen, team hauler driver) that day and I sat at home for four days. I didn’t know what to do with myself. We lost our owner, our driver, our friend, we didn’t know what we were going to do. I didn’t even know if I wanted to race anymore. The only thing that kept me going was that my daughter was just born and I had that to lean on. I knew Alan would not want me to just sit around and let this go. We all got together as a team that next week and Felix Sebates got involved and said, ‘Look guys, you cannot let this deal fall apart. Alan would not like it.’ So we didn’t we gathered our (stuff) together and we got together as the same group of guys, (Geoff) Bodine came over and drove the car and we went on from there.”
“It was tough. Nobody knew how to act,” Andrews added. “It was something we hadn’t experienced in our sport before. It was very tough and just really, really hard knowing how to act. We all knew we had to get back to what we do, which is our business and our life, which is to go racing, but it was tough, it was a tough year.”
The year was made even tougher when Davey Allison’s helicopter wrecked while landing at the Talladega Superspeedway on July 12. One day later, Allison passed away and NASCAR lost its second star in four months.
Son of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Allison, Davey was one of the biggest stars in the sport in the early 90s. Missing out on the championship to Kulwicki, Allison started the 1993 season with a win three races into the season at Richmond. Coming off a strong run in the inaugural race in New Hampshire, Allison was lost three days later - the second devastating loss for the sport in less than four months.
The sport was reeling from the unexpected grief not only because they were both lost in such a short span of time, but they were both non-racing incidents, something Gibson believes was ultimately for the better.
“I don’t think any of us on the team can blame ourselves with what happened with the plane deal,” Gibson said. “You look at how you could have done it different, ‘Could he have rode with us in the truck?’ We can’t blame ourselves for that and we did everything we could do. I think the way it happened was definitely the best.”
Much like when Gibson lost Kulwicki, the death of Allison hit crew chief Larry McReynolds especially hard. Not only were the two teammates, McReynolds and Allison were best of friends.
“I look back at April 1, when Alan was killed in Bristol, Davey and I sat in our hotel room that night and said maybe now we know why we didn’t win that championship, it was Alan’s to win because obviously he won’t have another chance to win one,” McReynolds said. “Now, I will say about four months later July 13 it became a little foggier as to why we didn’t win because we lost Davey.
"I know what drove us forward after July 13 was Davey Allison," he said. "He had a strong philosophy that there is nothing that can come my way today that God and I can’t handle together. Trust me, that’s what got Robert Yates, Larry McReynolds and that No. 28 team to move forward. It was hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t lose just my race car driver, I lost my absolute best friend, but I knew what he would want us to do and Robert knew, the team knew and that’s what we did.”
Two men lost in the span of four months, both with lasting legacies both on and off the track. Now, 18 years later, fans walking through the NASCAR Hall of Fame have the chance to learn about their lives and their impact on the sport.
“I think it’s great they’ve done this Short Careers, Lasting Legacy for all of these guys, because to me this is what the NASCAR Hall of Fame should be all about, educating our newer, younger fans who these guys were, what they accomplished on the race track, what type of individuals they were,” McReynolds said.
“Trust me, I worked with two of these three (Allison and Richmond) and I was friends with the third (Kulwicki), and you will not find three more different individuals off the race track than those three with Kulwicki, Richmond and Davey. All of them had a very special talent about them and they were all different. Davey was very much on top of what he was looking for and what he needed. Alan Kulwicki was a very hands on driver/owner running his own program. Of course, Tim had no idea what the car was doing, he just got in there and drove it. It’s just really neat to see the NASCAR Hall of Fame acknowledge these guys and show our new fans what these guys were all about.”
This week, fans in the Charlotte area can attend the NASCAR Hall of Fame free of charge from 4pm-6pm until Friday, January 14. The Short Careers, Lasting Legacy exhibit will be on display until early July.
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