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Higgins Scuffs: Kulwicki glows in Valley of the Sun

Exactly a quarter-century now has raced by. Twenty-five years. It doesn’t seem possible.

What happened on Nov. 6, 1988 in the desert of Arizona remains as clear for me and some other NASCAR followers as the bright sky that sparkled that day in The Valley of the Sun.

In an upset of major proportions, Alan Kulwicki won the Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, scoring his first Cup Series triumph.

The big-time tour returns to the track for its annual autumn visit this week, with the AdvoCare 500 scheduled on Sunday.

Taking a victory lap as his jubilant teammates jumped for joy on pit road all those years ago, Kulwicki stunningly did a U-turn between the third and fourth corners at the 1-mile track. To the delight of an estimated 63,000 fans attending the speedway’s Cup inaugural, Kulwicki drove back around in a counter-clockwise direction.

“There never will be another first Cup win, so I wanted to do something memorable other than spewing champagne or standing on top of the car in Victory Lane,” explained a grinning Kulwicki during his winner’s interview in the press box. “I wanted to give the fans something to remember me and my first win by, and I figured this would do it.”

Kulwicki chuckled.

“It was my Polish victory lap.”

A native of Wisconsin, Kulwicki wasn’t concerned about a little ethnic humor because he was of Polish descent.

Counter-clockwise laps to victory lane have become standard procedure for many drivers in NASCAR’s touring series ever since.

Each time I see it done, I without fail think of Alan Kulwicki.

He achieved what no Cup competitor has since accomplished in all those 25 years: Kulwicki triumphed as an owner-driver, a man who funded and oversaw practically every facet of his small-by-comparison operation.

Kulwicki had come south to North Carolina in 1985 at the urging of then-Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler.

“This young man has been very successful racing in the upper Midwest,” Wheeler said in introducing Kulwicki at a speedway function. “He has what it takes to become a NASCAR star.”

Expectedly, Kulwicki struggled at first. With little sponsorship, he was on a tight budget. He operated out of small buildings and with a tiny fraction of the “boys back at the shop” that were working for the big, multi-car teams.

Kulwicki’s stolid determination to “do it my way” seemed a Don Quiotic quest.

Yet crew chief Paul Andrews and others on the team bought into and shared Kulwicki’s dream.

They started winning poles in their No. 7 Thunderbirds, gaining a bit of factory help from Ford. Finally, sponsors were attracted to the articulate Kulwicki, a college graduate who held an engineering degree from Wisconsin.

The dedication and untiring hard work at last produced fruition that fall day at Phoenix.

But it took a bit of luck.

Ricky Rudd appeared headed to a victory of runaway proportions. Driving a Chevrolet, Rudd had led 182 laps and built a five-second lead over Kulwicki. But a broken radiator hose suddenly sent Rudd to the garage area on the 297th of the 500-kilometer race’s 312 laps.

Rudd’s trouble gave Kulwicki the lead, and he continued on to the checkered flag, finishing a whopping 18.5 seconds ahead of runner-up Terry Labonte.

In a bit of irony, a Labonte gesture of sportsmanship had dealt Kulwicki good fortune earlier in the race. During a restart, Labonte noticed that the right front tire was going flat on Kulwicki’s car.

“Terry called his crew guys on the radio and they relayed the word to us,” said Andrews. “We got it changed and were really lucky.”

Lingering to watch Kulwicki celebrate in victory lane, fans overwhelmingly hailed him as a first-time winner at the age of 33. However, one writer from a major daily newspaper in California wasn’t impressed.

He wrote, and I’m paraphrasing: For the first time at Phoenix we had hoped to get Dale Earnhardt or Bill Elliott or Darrell Waltrip. Instead we get Alan Kulwicki.

Yes, Alan Kulwicki, destined to become one of the most admired men in NASCAR’s modern era.

Despite lucrative offers from big, rich teams, Kulwicki stuck to his dream.

The legendary Junior Johnson concedes he tried to hire Kulwicki. “If he had come with me, I would have handed him the keys to the whole operation and sat back and enjoyed it,” says Johnson, an inaugural inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.

“Alan had it all. The know-how of running a team and being its leader. The engineering expertise required in preparing cars. And on top of it all a great ability to drive.”

Against overwhelming odds, Kulwicki drove to the 1992 Cup Series championship, edging the Johnson/Elliott tandem by 10 points. The title was decided by Kulwicki leading one more lap than Elliott in the season finale at Atlanta for five bonus points.

Kulwicki was saluted across motorsports for his feat. His future seemed aglow with promise.

Then, it all came crashing down.

On April 1, 1993, the defending Cup champion and three companions lost their lives when his plane smashed into a hillside on landing approach during an icy night while he was en route to a race at Bristol, Tenn.

The shock and sadness will sting among old-time fans forever.

Countering it somewhat at this time is warmly recalling that day 25 years ago when Alan Kulwicki audaciously and amusingly drove his “Polish Victory Lap” into NASCAR lore.