Twenty years later, it’s still remembered as the saddest weekend ever at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Alan Kulwicki, the defending Winston Cup Series champion, was killed along with four others in a plane crash on April 1, 1993, flying in for that weekend’s Food City 500.
Kulwicki, 38, was also the defending champion of the race. He had made an appearance for sponsor Hooters restaurant at Knoxville that Thursday evening and the plane was on its way to Tri-Cities Regional Airport when ice formed on the plane’s wings and it crash in a field off Island Road near Blountville. It was literally less than 10 miles from its intended destination.
The months prior had been a time for celebration for NASCAR’s last independent champion.
Kulwicki, driver of the No. 7 Ford, had captured the 1992 series championship after coming into the final race of the season third behind Davey Allison and Bill Elliott.
Wayne Estes, now vice president of events for Bristol Motor Speedway, was then public relations manager for Ford Motor Co. He remembered when he first heard the news the plane had crashed.
“I had checked into then the Garden Plaza hotel in Johnson City and was in for the night,” Estes recalled. “I don’t remember what I did during the day, but back in those days it was “Must See TV” on Thursday nights on NBC. I remember around 10 o’clock, they cut in and said there had been a plane crash and they emphasized it was something more than a single-engine plane.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m going to know somebody on that plane.’ It was just a matter of waiting to see what was going to happen next. When they came on at 11 o’clock, they had the news the plane was registered to the Hooters Racing Team. They said everybody on board had died.”
Estes immediately picked up the telephone and called Don Hawk, who was then Kulwicki’s business manager. Strange as it was, Estes never thought about Hawk being on the plane. When Estes delivered the news, the first words out of Hawk’s mouth were, “Alan is on that plane.”
From there, they were trying to figure out who was on board and what to do next. Although the team had congregated at the airport, there wasn’t a need for Hawk or Estes to go there or to the crash site.
“We knew what the situation was,” Estes said. “We simply got up the next morning and went to the race track.”
They arrived at a foggy track the next morning with a cold, drizzly rain falling. The team representatives parked outside of turns one and two and walked up the hill at the old press box.
Once inside, Estes looked down at the team’s transporter sitting on the middle of front straightaway while the other teams’ transporters were parked in the infield.
The Kulwicki transporter was ready to make a sad tribute lap around the speedway, but there was another reason the team wasn’t in the infield with the other teams. Since Kulwicki was also the owner, there was no way the No. 7 could race.
Meanwhile, the Paul Andrews-led crew that had won such an improbable championship months earlier, was at a total loss, not knowing what to do.
“They finally had to have some people say, ‘Guys, you have to go home,’” Estes recalled. “You don’t have a car owner and you can’t put somebody else in that car. This race team is now part of the Alan Kulwicki estate.”
Dale Earnhardt, who would go on to win the 1993 NASCAR championship, had flown in behind Kulwicki. Everyone on Earnhardt’s plane heard the radio transmissions and they knew what had happened as soon as they got on the ground.
It set a somber mood, which Kyle Petty described as the saddest day ever at the race track, even more so than the day he learned about the death of his own son Adam.
Michael Waltrip can finally force a smile when remembering Kulwicki. He won the Nationwide Series race at Bristol on the Saturday after the plane crash, but only did half of Kulwicki’s “Polish Victory Lap” as a tribute. He had come into the Cup Series the same time as Kulwicki in 1985, and he stated he didn’t want to do all of Kulwicki’s routine.
Rusty Wallace, a rival of Kulwicki’s from their time racing on the Midwestern ASA circuit, won the following day’s Cup Series race. Kulwicki’s closest friend among the drivers, Wallace opted to do the entire backwards lap. In fact, the Polish victory lap became a part of Wallace’s routine after every Bristol victory.
“He did it several times here,” Estes recalled. “It was always with Alan in mind. Alan was the reigning champion and had won the Food City 500 the year before. The races he had won he done as an underdog and he really impacted a lot of people up and down pit road.”
Kulwicki won five races over his Sprint Cup career, his first coming at Phoenix in 1988. Although he won a series championsip, Bristol was the only track where Kulwicki won twice.
It was fitting that three years after his death, Bristol Motor Speedway named the Kulwicki grandstand in his honor, one of several honors which the fallen champion received posthmously.
“When Bruton (Smith) bought this track in 1996 and hired Jeff Byrd as general manager, the grandstands had lots of different names which were commercial names,” Estes said. “One of the first things Jeff Byrd wanted to do was make it easier for the race fans to find their seats with driver names. The first one he named, he said, ‘We have to do one for Kulwicki.’ He is a part of this place and always will be.”
Sunday: Bristol Motor Speedway director of media relations Lori Worley remembers being a reporter that fateful weekend and how some of NASCAR’s top stars reacted.