Tri-Cities Regional Airport was the last place Lori Worley wanted to be on April 1, 1993.
Then a sports writer for the Bristol Herald-Courier, the news came across on the police scanner that a plane had crashed off Island Road. It was believed one of the NASCAR drivers was on board.
Worley’s heart sank as she had talked to her good friend Dale Earnhardt earlier in the day, and this was the time his plane was scheduled to arrive.
She soon found out it was another NASCAR champion, 38-year-old Alan Kulwicki, who was on board with four others.
“I had interviewed Dale Earnhardt on the phone that day and he told me what time he was flying in,” Worley recalled. “It was the same time this plane had gone down, so it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, it’s Earnhardt.’
“Later when I was headed to the airport, the reporter said the initials on the plane were AK so I knew it was Kulwicki. I started trying to call some folks to see if he was actually on the plane. I headed to the airport, but at that time nobody knew if he was dead, alive or what had happened totally.”
She spent the rest of a long night at the airport, where she was soon joined by Rusty Wallace and members of Kulwicki’s team. As time passed, the news became more grim. There was no surprise when it was officially announced there were no survivors on board.
“All of his team came out to the airport,” Worley said. “Rusty Wallace was the only driver who came, but he sat out there all night long. About five in the morning, the sheriff finally announced that Kulwicki was on the plane and there were no survivors.”
Worley had a love of sports from the time she was a little girl. Covering races, ballgames and other sporting events were fun. This was, however, the last thing she wanted to be writing about.
“It was a miserable night,” she recalled. “When you get into sports writing, you don’t think you’re going to be writing about something like that. It was the hardest thing I ever had to cover. They wanted me to talk to (crew chief) Paul Andrews and the crew guys. They were all crying and it was really crazy sad. You couldn’t imagine a driver flying in for a race and losing his life like that.”
The long night ended, although it didn’t seem that way for Worley and the others.
After the official word came out, a press conference was scheduled at 8 a.m. at the speedway. It gave Worley just enough time to get home, take a shower and head straight to the pressbox. When she got to the press conference, she looked down to see Kulwicki’s Hooters transporter making a lap around the track on a gray, drizzly day.
“It was a cold, rainy morning, this feeling of such sadness over the whole place,” she said. “I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t want to be at the airport because even though they didn’t announce it for hours, everyone knew he was gone. It was just heartbreaking. Here’s a guy who finally reached the pinnacle of the sport, and a few short months later he was gone. I saw Paul Andrews balling, and all his guys were devastated. It just broke my heart. I remember sitting on the floor of the airport, crying all over the old Radio Shack T-80 as I’m filing my story.”
One of her assignments on Friday was asking the other drivers whether they should race in light of the defending series champion being killed. Overwhelmingly, the response was they were racers and that’s what they did.
“I think the only driver who suggested they shouldn’t race was Dale Jarrett, if I remember correctly,” Worley said. “Rusty won the race, and he and Alan were good friends. It was so emotional, so draining. I had talked to Alan quite a bit. He was such a nice guy and it was hard to believe he was gone. But it was one of those weekends you were just glad it was over.”
Worley called it her worst moment in the sport until Earnhardt died nearly eight years later. It was personal, a story she had to be a part of, talking to all of Kulwicki’s crew members and friends. There was more sadness because she had broken through the Kulwicki exterior which some saw as aloof. While they weren’t as close as she was with a few of the other drivers, they had struck up a friendship.
Worley has only driven by the crash site off Island Road once and that was years after the fatal plane crash. Her only thoughts were how close they came to the airport and landing safely.
She also remembered walking into Earnhardt’s hauler that Friday for his perspective on whether they should race or not. She’s often thought of the conversation in the years since, not only when the subject of Kulwicki’s death has come up, but after Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001.
“I walked up in Earnhardt’s hauler,” Worley recalled. “He asked what I was doing and he said, ‘Trust me, he would want us to race today. That’s the way it is.’ He said, ‘If I die tomorrow, I want them to race. They’re doing their jobs and they would need to be like every racer and go race.’
“When he died at the race track, I thought about that how he wouldn’t want people standing over him crying and saying they shouldn’t race. He accepted the danger of what they did and believed with everything in him that Kulwicki would want them to race that weekend.”