April 1, 1993 – The Day The Music Stopped

CHARLOTTE, NC (April 1, 2013) – The early morning broke cold and gray with alternating drizzle and snow flurries falling to the ground. It certainly didn’t look like it was going to be a good day for stock car racing.

As it turned out, April 1, 1993 wasn’t going to be a good day for racing. In fact, it wasn’t going to be a good day at all.

The weather was the main focus of conversation that morning as we sat at the dinette in our motorhome parked just outside Bristol International Speedway. Back then, there were no ‘smart phones’ or ‘pads’ to break out and get an instantaneous read on weather, so we turned on transistor radio to get the latest update.

A commercial for a local car dealership greeted us before the announcer returned to deliver staggering news – Alan Kulwicki – the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup champion – and three others had perished in a plane crash at Tri-Cities Regional Airport in nearby Blountville, TN.

Suddenly, the weather was meaningless.

This couldn’t be. The announcer had to be wrong.

We crowded around the little radio straining to hear the details, hoping the news was a twisted, ill-advised ‘April Fools’ joke.

Unfortunately, this was no joke.

I quickly dressed and headed to the Bristol media center. As a racing writer – and the only one on the scene that day from Wisconsin – I needed to be on the job getting the details of what was at the time one of the biggest stories in the history of the sport.

But this was more than a news story to me. Kulwicki may have been NASCAR’s latest darling, but he and I had known each other for years doing countless interviews at places like Slinger, Capital, WIR and The Dells – all Badger state tracks that we both frequented during the 1980’s.

Kulwicki was an interesting study to me back in his early pre-NASCAR fame days. The Greenfield, WI native wasn’t like other area drivers. Armed with a Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – and a lifetime of racing knowledge thanks to his father Gerald – Kulwicki had the ability to think his way through problems at the track.

Direct, intense and totally focused, many racers and fans misunderstood Kulwicki during his Wisconsin short-track days labeling him as difficult, a jerk, an asshole.

Personally, I never had any issues with him. At the time, I was one of the few motorsports writers who actually worked for a Wisconsin daily newspaper, not just a racing trade paper or magazine. As such, Kulwicki always seemed to have time for me. Unlike many other competitors back then, Kulwicki knew the benefits of media exposure. I usually found him to be concise, insightful and almost always, good copy.

Of course, you had to know when to pick your spots. Charging in for an interview after a disappointing loss or crash was never going to work with Kulwicki. Neither was interrupting him while he was working on his car. Looking back now, those experiences with Kulwicki made me a better reporter and certainly prepared me for what I would experience later on when I made the ‘big time’ in NASCAR.

So it was that I found myself at Bristol on that numbing April 1993 day. I remember sitting in the press box listening to the official announcement of Kulwicki’s passing. As transport driver Pete Jellen wheeled Kulwicki’s race hauler out of the track for the final time, tears flowed freely in the press box. I had never seen that before in any professional media room – a place that can be as hard and jaded as any you will ever encounter.

For the past 20 years, people have speculated how NASCAR would be different if Kulwicki – and later Davey Allison – hadn’t perished in 1993. I have always resisted that urge, never wondering what might have been, but rather celebrating what was.

In Kulwicki’s case, it was winning races and championships. More importantly, it was breaking barriers, bringing new ideas and methods of doing things to the sport. In some way, every racer in NASCAR today – especially the engineers – owe a debt of gratitude to him.

Few racers – regardless how successful they are – can claim that.

So it is April 1 will never be ‘just another day’ for anyone who ever knew Alan Kulwicki. It’s a day when the music stopped, when the weather and stock car racing took a back seat to something more important – the passing of a friend.

‘Special K.’


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